For my father’s generation, the key sign of advancing years was the fact that the policemen started to look far too young to be entrusted with the task of keeping law and order. For my generation, the advent of old age is signaled by the fact that some of the feared wild feminists of my youth start to make admirable sense even when opining on matters relating to the battle of the sexes.
Germaine Greer is the great example, mainly through her consistent, intelligent, and controversial opposition to transgender ideology. The latest example is provided (I am ashamed to say) by my own undergraduate university (though not, I hasten to add, my college). Murray Edwards College (known in my day as New Hall), an exclusively female Cambridge institution, is to allow men who self-identify as women to apply (and presumably matriculate). Enter Ms. Greer with a breath of refreshing and to-the-point common sense:
If [Murray Edwards] really don’t believe that gender is binary, then they really shouldn’t be a single sex college. Their position is ridiculous. The only sane thing for them to do is to cease discriminating on the basis of assigned gender of any kind.
In saying this, Greer goes to the heart of the problem on which transgender ideology founders—or would founder, if it were not kept afloat by lobby groups and the media. Transgender ideology depends upon a distinction between the male and female genders, even while denying the only grounds for maintaining that distinction: genetic and physiological difference.
Single-sex colleges are founded on the gender binary. Deny that binary, and their reason for existence vanishes. But we live at a cultural moment when thinking on sexuality has become so clouded by emotion and psychobabble that minor concerns, such as logical coherence or any connection to practical reality, can be brushed aside.
New Hall was founded to address the disparity of men to women at Cambridge. Its very presence in Cambridge is predicated on the idea that there is such a thing as gender, and that male and female exist as binary opposites. Its origins reflect the fact that women did at one time find it difficult to go into higher education, because they were part of a society that treated them differently and perhaps unfairly. And that treatment was based on the fact they were women, a point determined by their physical difference from men. That binary distinction was—and is—a given.
One does not choose one’s gender. It is given in one’s bodily constitution. One can have one’s anatomy reconfigured by surgery and hormones altered by chemical treatments, but, as Camille Paglia has noted, every cell will stubbornly retain its XX or XY chromosomes. The separation of physical sex from gender takes an obvious truth—that notions of male and female roles and behavior are subject to some degree to social conditioning—and infers absolute metaphysical conclusions far beyond what such a slender basis can support.
If I am wrong, and the physical and genetic differences between men and women are accidental to substantial identity, then the way to overcome that binary is to abolish it. But can this be done logically?
How can we make sense of the phrase, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body”? Even transgender ideology does not help us. If gender is a set of socially constructed habits or patterns of behavior, then who decides what constitutes the “womanhood” with which this individual identifies? And who decides what constitutes the “man’s body” in which this individual is trapped? Concede the biological maleness of men’s bodies, and you concede the argument—as some transgender activists recognize. Once the language of gender has been denied its objective reference, any sentence containing gender terms would seem to descend into literal nonsense.
Women’s colleges, like women’s sports, are an anachronism in the world of gender fluidity. The question therefore is: Do the sexual radicals have the courage to follow the logic of their own position through to its obvious conclusion? All women-only zones need to be abolished. Unless this happens, the perpetuation of the binary gender hegemony will persist. The Fellows of Murray Edwards College no doubt think they are on the cutting edge of gender liberation. In fact they are merely the latest example of how incoherent and self-serving those who capitulate to transgender ideology can be.
Germaine Greer is right. This is ridiculous. And, boy, I must be getting old.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.