What should women care about in 2022? This was the implicit question asked by Mumsnet on Tuesday, when the platform hosted a discussion with Stella Creasy and Caroline Nokes, two MPs, on women and mothers in politics.
Though some questions focused on childcare for politicians and media attacks on the appearance of female MPs, the vast majority concerned one topic. “Should males be included in women-only shortlists?” was one. “Would you be happy if Labour’s first woman leader were a transwoman? (Biological male)” was another.
They could have asked anything; instead, each user was allowed one question, and nearly all of them asked about gender, and the existence of transgender people.
It felt shocking and odd, and I decided to tweet about it. That proved to be a mistake, as tweeting often is. I am writing this three days later and I am still being asked about gender every other minute.
I am not here to complain about it or to make a case for transgender rights. I am not going to convince anyone to change their mind in a handful of sentences, and see no point in attempting to do so. Instead, I would like to point to two worrying developments in online feminism, which I believe were made depressingly clear by this incident.
The first is the obsessiveness of the “gender critical” movement. I will happily admit to being on the other side of the argument from them but, though it is an issue close to my heart, I spend little time thinking about it. I have opinions on a wide variety of topics, and this is only one of them. The same applies to everyone I know who thinks the same as me; even trans friends have confessed to not thinking about their own transness all that much.
The other side, however, seemingly thinks and writes about little else. As exemplified by the Mumsnet thread and the Twitter profiles of the users in my mentions, being gender critical now means spending your days posting and arguing about trans people. It is no longer an opinion but an identity, and one around which social networks are formed.
It may seem like an inflammatory word to use in this context, but I do sincerely believe “radicalisation” is the term that most closely describes what these women have gone through.
It is a concept often used to describe religious extremists or QAnon believers, but the process remains the same; get interested in a topic, become enveloped in it, become more extreme in your opinions, start engaging solely with people who share both your views and obsessiveness for that topic, spend your time arguing with people who disagree with your in-group. What else would you call it?
This leads us to the second point. By deciding to centre their online persona and their feminism around gender issues, these women now refuse to recognise the legitimacy of those with opposing views. It does not matter that feminism has always had strands and internal disagreements; if you support transgender people, you cannot be a feminist.
I have been called a handmaiden, a “pick me” girl, and been accused of vying for male attention. It does not matter that I have been a feminist all my life and have the receipts to prove it; my views on gender apparently mean I have taken the side of sexist men.
It is infuriating, of course, but also saddening. There are many problems facing women today and we will only be able to solve them by, at times, working with people who we disagree with on other issues. Rape convictions are abysmally low and police forces are institutionally sexist; mothers are still discriminated against in the workplace and refuges are still woefully underfunded.
These are the things we could — and should — be focusing on, together. I am just not sure we can any more.