A new form of misogyny is taking hold in contemporary culture. It comes in the guise of a liberationist philosophy, a transformational movement dedicated to open-mindedness. Its advocates believe they are ushering in a world in which one can be whomever one chooses to be. And in doing so, they are treating womanhood itself—the defining feature of half of humankind—as though it is a disposable commodity.
Under the dictates of this new dispensation, anyone, regardless of physiology, must be allowed to lay claim to the biological realities of the female body. Anyone should have the right to call themselves a woman.
The misogynistic nature of this revolution has escaped proper scrutiny precisely because it is understood as progressive—as literally better than everything that has come before. And it casts everything that has come before as suspect: All forms of social organization and every idea that denies this movement’s claims have been deemed retrogressive and actively harmful to the forward march of greater rights for all.
This is an audacious form of woman-hatred, especially since it comes in the guise of opening up womanhood, of extending its benefits to all. But by doing so, it becomes nothing less than an assault on what it means to be a woman. And it is not being understood as such by its advocates and their fellow travelers because of a potent combination of two factors: First, people’s fears of being labeled bigots, and second, a genuine and commendable effort to extend compassion and care to a very small minority.
That compassion has largely been met with hostility. It is becoming increasingly clear that the new misogyny shares one feature with the old: contempt for women. The difference is that the contempt is now coming from the radical extremes of the trans movement. As the signs carried by trans activists who recently protested a women’s conference in the UK read, “Suck my dick you transphobic cunt.” This is not progress. This is misogyny.
These radicals insist on redefining women in masculine terms. Women are as tough as men; they are not biologically different from men; indeed, many of them were born men, came of age as men, and, despite having lived in the guise of women for but a scant portion of their lives, feel entitled to take positions of power away from women. Even motherhood must be acknowledged as something men should be allowed to claim as their own.
Classic misogyny claimed that men were better than women merely by dint of being born male. The new misogyny insists that being female isn’t an essential biological fact but a mutable identity, something anyone can be. It gives men permission to say to women: We can be women, too.
This flies in the face of all history and experience of Homo sapiens. Biological differences between the sexes are real; indeed, those differences make it possible for us to exist. Literally. But today’s radical egalitarians do not like the consequences and choices that flow from that fact and are currently attempting to erase it from our collective cultural experience.
Acknowledging the distinction between biological sex and how one expresses one’s gender identity is not the issue. That cultural battle has largely been settled in favor of greater acceptance of fluidity in gender expression. No, this is something more radical, and it is poised to turn a nascent fourth wave of feminism into a form of female cultural erasure.
Feminists have long argued that although men and women are fundamentally different, they deserve equal treatment as a matter of human rights. “Ain’t I a Woman?” was the plaintive demand of feminist Sojourner Truth. The trans-rights movement answers that demand with: There is no such thing as a woman.
And so women now find themselves unwittingly forced into the position of revanchists, trying to reclaim territory they long ago won in their struggle for equality.
In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, the pioneering British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft memorably insisted that women were rational beings, as capable as men and as deserving of opportunity. “I shall first consider women in the grand light of human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed on this earth to unfold their faculties,” she wrote. “Virtue can only flourish among equals.” The men of her time were not easily convinced; Horace Walpole called Wollstonecraft a “hyena in petticoats.”
Yet by the 19th century, the emergence of what is now called “first-wave feminism” had made gains, particularly around the demands for female suffrage. The feminism of the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, embraced the idea that women were different from men but no less equal. Indeed, they often invoked women’s supposedly superior moral sense to argue for an expansion of their rights in the political realm.
In the 20th century, so-called second-wave feminism focused on extensions of these public rights, such as the right of women to make money while working in a job of their choosing, to obtain lines of credit in their own name, and to serve on juries. By the 1960s, feminists were also winning battles for greater reproductive rights, reform of divorce and marital-rape laws, protections against domestic violence, and equal pay and educational opportunities. Many of those rights were enshrined in federal laws, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
This second wave, though more radical in some ways, still often invoked women’s unique qualities as women as justification for seeking political power. “The personal is political,” a phrase much in use in the 1960s and 1970s, signaled that commitment. In their efforts to combat misogyny and sexism in politics and culture, second-wave feminists created new, women-only spaces (such as domestic violence shelters) and developed theories about women’s leadership styles as more cooperative and inclusive than men’s. And the battle against sexism waged by the second wave still acknowledged the biological realities of being a woman, even if a few outré figures insisted that those realities also potentially limited women’s opportunities; a radical thinker named Shulamith Firestone dreamed of a day when women would be liberated from biology through the widespread use of artificial wombs, for example.
By the 1990s, third-wave feminists extended the feminist critique further, coopting previously sexist tropes and misogynistic language such as “bitch” and engaging in a more “sex-positive” approach to womanhood. They were critical of their second-wave feminist mothers; many rejected the label “feminist” entirely. Culture, not politics, was their chosen battlefield.
Within every wave of feminism, women struggled among themselves with biological essentialism and the attendant questions it raised. Did the ability to become pregnant and give birth hamper women’s ability to succeed in society, for example, or did it create an imperative for society to offer special protections for them? Feminist theorists continue to argue about whether defining women in any way related to biology reinforces the very thing that has been used to justify the oppression of women for centuries.
Despite considerable disagreement, however, no one before had denied women the reality of their own biological existence. Rather, the argument that triumphed and made women in the Western world some of the freest people on earth was that whatever differences existed, women were of equal value to men in public life, and their immutable qualities (including motherhood) were as central to human flourishing as the immutable qualities of men.
Today, a fourth wave is emerging, but it does not resemble anything like the feminism of the past, because it contains within it the radical notion that biological sex differences are not real.
Its early iterations can be found in the 2000s, when women’s-studies departments at universities began recasting themselves as gender-studies programs. To study women is to acknowledge the realities and limits of biology. To study gender is, according to its most radical proponents, to study the limitless experience of any number of self-defined identities.
The godmother of gender theory, Judith Butler of UC Berkeley, argues in her book Gender Trouble that “male” and “female” are merely arbitrary, constructed categories, a binary based not on any biological realities but rather on oppression. Gender is a performance, a game anyone can and should play, and any efforts to create special protections for women or acknowledge the limits of physical differences between men and women are merely excuses made by the patriarchy to hoard power. Everything is socially constructed, including the physiological experience of bearing children (which Butler describes not as a miracle but as “the compulsory obligation on women’s bodies to reproduce”).
Instead, Butler argues that by not recognizing biological realities, “the culturally constructed body will then be liberated, neither to its ‘natural’ past, nor to its original pleasures, but to an open future of cultural possibilities.”
But how open is that future if it requires everyone to adhere to a dogma that denies biological realities? Butler and her many acolytes have taken literally Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” In her landmark 1949 book, The Second Sex, Beauvoir observed how social and cultural forces shape one’s perception of oneself and the public’s idea of what a woman is and should do. Hers was a plea for greater understanding—by men, social institutions, and women themselves—of the fact that the experience of being female created unique challenges and insights not always understood or respected by the other half of the species. However revolutionary its aims, Beauvoir’s analysis was grounded in biological realities.
By contrast, anyone who believes that biological realities root women in a particular experience is, according to the new dispensation, a “TERF,” or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Butler went even further, calling anyone who argued for sex-based rights (and sex-exclusive spaces such as women’s prisons, rape crisis centers, and the like) a fascist: “The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our time. So the TERFs will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism.”
There are many people outside the academy who are eager to embrace such radical ideas because by doing so they believe they will help trans people, whom they also believe to be at serious risk. Reporting on a recent protest by trans activists against Netflix (for airing a Dave Chappelle comedy special they think is transphobic), Variety noted that among the protestors was the creator of the series Transparent, Joey (formerly Jill) Soloway. “Trans people are in the middle of a holocaust,” Soloway declared. “Apartheid, murder, a state of emergency, human rights crisis, there’s a mental health crisis. There’s a suicide crisis, a bullying crisis, an anxiety, depression, self-hatred state of emergency crisis.”
If this were true, tolerance for dissenters from the new orthodoxy would rightfully be seen as a serious moral error. Perhaps that is why trans activists insist that compulsory acceptance of the idea that biology is a figment is a necessary stop on the road to true tolerance. Colin Wright has observed at Quillette that “as more and more people refer to themselves as trans, nonbinary, two-spirited, and gender-non-conforming, there’s been a push to realign the objective reality of biological sex to match one’s subjectively experienced gender identity. In the emerging view, the very notion of males and females existing as real biological entities is now seen as obsolete.”
This is a more extreme claim than saying that sex exists on a “spectrum” or that gender is a fluid category that allows for a range of expressions. As Wright notes, according to the reigning trans ideological posture, “a person may literally reimagine their biology, as if by alchemy, by merely stating so.”
Embracing this is not optional. Trans activists insist on the transformation of words and their meaning so as not to offend the extremely small minority of people who identify as women but were not born female. To show proper respect, we are told that women are no longer women, but “people with vaginas.” Women are not mothers, but “birthing people” or “chest-feeders.”
The new misogynists have cleverly coopted the language of feminism and its emphasis on misogyny. Trans activists denounce what they call “transmisogyny” and discuss the implications of the “cotton ceiling.” The latter phrase is a reimagining of “glass ceiling,” the supposedly invisible barrier to women’s career success that second-wave feminism devoted a great deal of energy to shattering. By contrast, the “cotton ceiling” refers to women’s underwear, and, as the BBC described, the phrase is “intended to represent the difficulty some trans women feel they face when seeking relationships or sex.” Planned Parenthood of Toronto hosted a workshop devoted to the cotton ceiling; its director described the session as exploring “the ways in which ideologies of transphobia and transmisogyny impact sexual desire.”
These changes have happened quickly, most noticeably in the transformation of the meaning of words we have used for generations. The results have been jarring. A Huffington Post headline from October read, “California Governor Signs Law to Improve Outcomes for Black Birthing People and Babies.” The Centers for Disease Control under the Biden administration embraced the trend, encouraging “pregnant people” to get COVID vaccinations in late September.
Similarly, in September, the British medical journal the Lancet advertised its latest issue on social media with the quote “Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected.” Lest you think these new semantic rules are equally applied, a few days earlier, the Lancet had no problem promoting an article about prostate health with the following statement: “About 10 million men are currently living with a diagnosis of prostate cancer—making it a major health issue.” It is only women whose bodies have been erased and replaced by “bodies with vaginas.”
The deliberate sowing of confusion about what to call men and women was also on display when the Biden administration announced that Rachel Levine, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, was made a four-star admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. The administration boasted that Levine was both the first transgender appointee to reach this rank as well as the “first female four-star admiral.”
But Levine in fact is not biologically female (she transitioned in 2011, when she was in her forties, but lived most of her life as a biological male). She identifies as a woman, and it would have been more appropriate to say she was the first woman to achieve that rank, or more precisely, the first trans woman. But the use of the word “female” by the Biden administration was purposeful. It is meant to elide distinctions based on biological realities, denying half the population its unique characteristics, all while those who use the term are patting themselves on the back for their inclusiveness and tolerance. No wonder the announcement prompted cynicism; as one observer noted on Twitter, Levine’s appointment proved that “anything women can do, biological men can do better.”
This is not an argument for denying Levine her right to identify as she chooses. But dehumanizing biological women by turning them into abstractions such as “bodies with vaginas” and “people with cervixes” is not striking a blow for tolerance and equality. It is the bureaucratizion of misogyny.
And it spares no one. This fall, the American Civil Liberties Union chose to honor Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the anniversary of her death by removing the word “woman” from something she had said during her confirmation hearings. The doctored statement now read, “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a [person]’s life, to [their] well-being and dignity.” Just a year ago, the ACLU had published the same quotation with the word “woman” still intact.
The effort to transform words and their meaning is part of a broader effort to police behavior regarding who can and cannot speak for women and their experiences. Just as an earlier generation of activists made use of “queer theory” to pursue a political agenda that called for “queering” normal spaces and activities (to chip away at “normativity” in hopes of eventually erasing the concept of “normal” entirely), today’s activists seek to use language to confuse what is understood as average or normal while also policing the behavior of others.
This effort extends beyond semantics. It also demands the destruction of female-only spaces. If, as trans activists demand, we accept that someone born male can identify as female, then we must also accept that they should have access to women’s spaces. Contrary to what progressives claim, however, this idea is neither popular nor justified by historical precedent. When women understandably object, citing concerns for their own physical safety or privacy, they are not listened to respectfully, nor are their concerns treated seriously. Rather, they are called bigoted.
Transphobia is also wielded as a weapon against anyone who challenges born-male people competing as women in sports competitions. Trans women with significant physical advantages, like the mixed-martial-arts athlete who identifies as female and pummeled a born-female competitor while wearing an “End Trans Genocide” T-shirt, are using the biological advantages that come from having been born male (and experiencing male puberty) against women. Women are losing out on college scholarships, membership on Olympic teams, and careers in professional athletics because trans women who compete with a significant physiological advantage are beating them (in the case of mixed-martial-arts competitions, quite literally).
Trans activists tend to downplay the idea that trans-female athletes compete at a significant advantage compared with born-female athletes. Yet trans women have clearly figured this out. University of Pennsylvania student Lia Thomas, who is biologically male and competed as a male in NCAA Division I swimming for three years, now identifies—and competes as—a woman. Not surprisingly, she is obliterating female competitors thanks to the great physiological advantages she has as someone who was born male and went through puberty as a male, with the resulting increase in strength, muscle mass, and bone density. “Thomas blasted the number one 200 free time and the second-fastest 500 free time in the nation,” SwimSwam news reported after a recent meet, where Thomas broke Penn’s existing women’s swim records. As a male, Thomas was one of many good but not exceptional swimmers. But by competing as a woman, Thomas has now become an Olympic-caliber athlete. And her extraordinary boost in status comes at the expense of female athletes whose training and determination can never overcome Thomas’s obvious physical advantages.
The absurdity of calling this situation a blow for equality was captured well in a recent episode of South Park called “Board Girls.” The episode features a character, Heather Swanson, who transitioned from male to female two weeks earlier and goes on to win every female sports competition in the town. Sporting a full beard and a masculine physique, she trounces the wife of “PC Principal” in the town’s “strong woman” competition. Her comeuppance comes in the form of the “board girls,” an all-female board-games club that destroys her in competitions that do not require physical strength.
South Park was parodying something that our nation’s cultural elite have embraced uncritically: the notion that the way to stop the stereotyping of women as the weaker sex is to have women’s desires, interests, and accomplishments represented by people who were born male.
This extends to the workplace, where people born male are now granted the moral authority to speak on behalf of all women. Consider a recent profile of Natalie Egan in Elle. Egan, a self-described failed former “tech bro,” transitioned to female and soon rebranded herself as the voice and face of gender equality in the workplace. “It wasn’t just because she was trans,” Elle notes. “It was because, having left the identity of a successful white man behind, she was experiencing marginalization and vulnerability.” Egan’s executive coach says Egan “really had the experience as a woman of not being taken seriously, and not being acknowledged as an equal.”
Egan now enjoys lucrative invites as a keynote speaker at women’s networking events and is selling an app, Translator, that “works with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Human Resources departments at companies like Claire’s and ViacomCBS.” Good for her, but Egan’s handful of years living as a woman does not automatically grant her the authority to speak on behalf of women in the workplace.
Most disturbingly, the new misogyny demands that women conform to trans ideology in even the most intimate situations: the people to whom they feel sexually attracted. Trans activists insist that desire itself is socially constructed, and so can be deconstructed to conform to trans demands for acceptance.
A much-lauded new book, The Right to Sex, by the Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan, begins with an unusual disclaimer: “At birth, bodies are sorted as ‘male’ or ‘female,’ though many bodies must be mutilated to fit one category or the other, and many bodies will later protest against the decision that was made.” She goes on to ask, “Is anyone innately attracted to penises or vagina? Or are we first attracted to ways of being in the world, including bodily ways, which we later learn to associate with certain specific parts of the body?”
In other words, sexual desire and sexual preference are merely learned behaviors, roles we can take on and discard as we please. “Some bodies are for other bodies to have sex with,” Srinivasan states. But not every body. To the gay man who expresses “disgust at vaginas,” she asks, “Is this the expression of an innate, and thus permissible revulsion—or a learned and suspect misogyny?”
In practice, this approach to desire has led to the policing of sexuality on a grand scale, particularly of lesbians, who insist that they are attracted only to women with female sex organs. The BBC recently interviewed lesbians who had been threatened and labeled transphobic because they acknowledged that they were sexually attracted only to biological women. As the reporter notes: “They described being harassed and silenced if they tried to discuss the issue openly. I received online abuse myself when I tried to find interviewees using social media.”
The sex-shaming is driven by a small number of activists who have outsize influence thanks to social media and cancel culture. “I’ve had someone saying they would rather kill me than Hitler,” a 24-year-old lesbian woman told the BBC. “They said they would strangle me with a belt if they were in a room with me and Hitler.” Her crime: “She says she is only sexually attracted to women who are biologically female and have vaginas. She therefore only has sex and relationships with women who are biologically female.” As a result, she has been called transphobic, a TERF, and a “genital fetishist” by trans activists.
Another lesbian activist told the reporter, “Lesbians are still extremely scared to speak because they think they won’t be believed, because the trans ideology is so silencing everywhere.” “This word ‘transphobia’ has been placed like a dragon in the path to stop discussion about really important issues,” another said.
In a recent interview with the libertarian UK magazine Spiked, lesbian activist Kate Harris was blunt about what is happening: “At its very heart is misogyny. It’s so regressive, so misogynistic and so homophobic. It reinforces all the old stereotypes that we thought had gone.” Harris notes emphatically that this is not an argument for intolerance against trans people. “We want every single child to grow up being what he or she wants to be, not tied down by pink or blue gender roles,” she says. “I have fought for 50 years for people’s right to do what they want. Wear a dress! Call yourself Ariadne! But don’t say you are a woman. And don’t say that I am transphobic if I don’t want to have sex with you because you’re a man with a penis wearing a dress.”
At its root, misogyny is a hatred of the things that give women their unique power and their unique vulnerability—the biological differences that make women as a group physically weaker in hand-to-hand combat, for example, but powerful enough to perform the labor of pregnancy and childbirth. And to outlive men. One of feminism’s salient achievements was arguing that those unique qualities did not make women morally, intellectually, legally, or politically inferior.
The new misogyny in effect says that it does. It claims that since everyone who wants to be a woman does not have to be born that way, it’s offensive and bigoted to believe the biological facts that flow from the truth that one is—as the title of feminist Adrienne Rich’s 1976 book put it—Of Woman Born. It forces on society a lie about women and enforces it through illiberal intimidation. It is neither tolerant nor liberating.
Spiked reported on a recent feminist human-rights conference in the UK, where women, many of them survivors of male violence, had convened to discuss issues such as rape, domestic abuse, and sex trafficking. Trans activists picketed and tried to shout down speakers, including women who had organized to protect other women from rape in a Kenyan refugee camp. Trans activists claimed the conference “puts the lives of our trans and non-binary friends in danger” because it focused on the needs of those born female.
One of the most prominent critics of trans activist extremism, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, has been attacked relentlessly on social media by activists after she tweeted support for a woman who had lost her job for saying biological sex was real, and for supporting lesbian activist Magdalen Berns, who had argued publicly that lesbians should not be called bigots merely because they aren’t sexually attracted to trans women. As Rowling wrote in a statement on her personal website, she has dealt with “threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch and, of course, for my books to be burned.”
In late November, however, Rowling posted on Twitter that police had to get involved after trans activists posted pictures of themselves in front of her house with her address clearly visible in a blatant attempt to dox her. She noted how many women she’s spoken to, including many with no public profile, who “have been subject to campaigns of intimidation which range from being hounded on social media, the targeting of their employers, all the way up to doxing and direct threats of violence, including rape.” She added, “None of these women are protected in the way I am. They and their families have been put into a state of fear and distress for no other reason than that they refuse to uncritically accept that the socio-political concept of gender identity should replace that of sex….I’ve now received so many death threats I could paper the house with them, and I haven’t stopped speaking out. Perhaps—and I’m just throwing this out there—the best way to prove your movement isn’t a threat to women, is to stop stalking, harassing and threatening us.”
Genuine tolerance for trans people doesn’t require the erasure of the characteristics that half of the population believes to be intrinsic to their sense of personhood. Erasing women to inaugurate a “new normal” regarding gender is destructive, not tolerant. And it offers no recognition that what might be acceptable for adults (trans-friendly bathrooms) could be uncomfortable for vulnerable women (domestic violence shelters) or for children.
An extremely small minority is not merely demanding tolerance to live as they choose; they are demanding that the overwhelming majority conform to the language and practices they insist upon, or else be labeled evildoers. They demand that everyone declare and perform their own gender preferences and pronouns and proclivities with no regard for privacy or restraint.
It’s a strange bargain: not, in the tradition of previous eras of feminism, to extend the rights and protections of womanhood to people born male who now want to live as women, but rather to denigrate the very category of woman, both in language and in function, by claiming it for themselves. The disrespect is staggering. And so is the danger.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.