Germaine Greer has been a long-standing critic of treating as women those men who have undergone transgender medical procedures. In the last week, this led to yet another transgender debacle as Rachael Melhuish, women’s officer at Cardiff University students’ union, launched an online petition to have Greer’s invitation to lecture at the university withdrawn. Greer’s immediate crime? Accusing Bruce Jenner of transitioning to Caitlyn in order to eclipse the Kardashian women in their constant quest for the celebrity limelight. So far, so trivial. But her real crime is rather more serious: Believing that biology is the basic element of gender.
Traditional egalitarian feminism rested upon a contradiction which Greer always (rightly) refused to accept. It essentially required the practical elimination of sexual difference in its quest for equality yet desired the maintenance of that difference in order to have a coherent movement. Female bodies and female biology were thus to be simultaneously overcome and asserted. For feminists like Greer, this quest for equality therefore continued to make maleness normative. Instead, she pressed for liberation, based upon the foundational biological difference between men and women.
For Greer, then, male-to-female transgender transition is just another attempt by men to undermine the female body and thus undermine any possibility of women’s liberation. Indeed, transgenderism is arguably the outworking of the contradiction that lies at the heart of egalitarian feminism: Bodies are not important, because gender is ultimately a social construct and/or a psychological feeling, not a biological reality; But bodies are crucially important because they need to be mutilated and hormonally manipulated in order to conform with that social construction/psychological feeling. Same horse, different jockey, as an old colleague of mine used to say.
In this context, among the reactions to Greer the comment of Guardian journalist, Zoe Williams, struck me as interesting:
The rigidity and conventionality of Greer’s stance puzzles me: to define a woman as a person born with certain organs in certain places is uncurious – uncharacteristically so from this famously interrogative mind. The philosophical dimension of gender is far more complicated and interesting than the way a person looks or sounds; to refuse to brook any of that, appealing instead to the gut sense of an unidentifiable bloc of “a great many women”, is authoritarian and narrow.
‘Uncurious'? It is surely no more ‘uncurious’ of Greer to hold this position regarding men, women, and sexual organs than it is of me to treat my Jack Russell as a dog and therefore feed him dog food when he is hungry and take him to the veterinarian, rather than my own family physician, when he is ill. Biology is important for knowing who and what we are. In fact, only the historically and philosophically tendentious and (as I have indicated above) inconsistent severing of identity from biology makes the matter of gender worthy of debate. And, of course, that debate is no longer taking place because it is deemed ‘hateful’ and ‘dangerous' by those who have a vested interest in considering it to be so.
A fair reading of Greer makes it clear that her point about looks and sound is scarcely foundational to her argument, and only somebody willfully ignorant of her writings would claim otherwise. She has a lifetime of work behind her which makes sexual biology basic and against which such ‘look and sound’ rhetoric should be read. Like Geoffrey Chaucer’s unfortunate Absolon, yes, she probably does assume that ‘a womman hath no berd’ but she scarcely rests her case upon that generally reliable aesthetic observation.
Ironically, what Williams denies to Greer she permits for herself. For how do such arbiters of political taste make their case? To use medieval terminology, they do so only on the basis of accidental properties (feelings, psychological judgments, socially constructed identities), things which are no more objective than looks and sounds. Thus, it is apparently illegitimate for Greer to use accidents as a small rhetorical part of a much bigger argument, but quite legitimate for Williams and company to ignore biology and hazard their entire case on them—even as they then smuggle biology in through the back door by making the removal of a real sex organ or the addition of a pretend one as a key indicator of gender transformation.
It was the medieval realist philosopher John Wycliffe who pointed most acutely to the problem of tearing apart substance and accidents, what a thing really is from what it simply appears to be. To do so, he argued, could lead only to radical skepticism. Appearance would be reality. Or, more accurately, reality would be mere appearance. What he did not foresee was the result of such a rupture in the context of a world of mass media, post-Marcuse/Reich left-wing sexual psychology, and political correctness. The final result today is not radical skepticism but the increasing imposition of fictions and make-believe on the skeptical vacuum which is society at large, and this reinforced with the powerful and emotive rhetoric of love/hate, safety/danger etc. When there is no reality out there, when history and biology count for little or nothing, then all things, from gender to ethics, become simply whatever the people with power and influence decide that they should be.
Germaine Greer’s ultimate crime is that she believes in a reality beyond her head and beyond the myths of the bien pensants. And when Germaine Greer is under attack for being too right-wing in holding such a view, then the rest of us had better be very worried. A phrase about lunatics, an asylum and a takeover comes to mind.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.