Why we can’t have nice things: A Gender Week post-mortem

By Roz Kaveney

One of the biggest debates within feminism has always been how we define, how we describe, the word ‘gender’. One of the biggest problems with that debate has always been that, for a significant minority of feminists, there is none; only a dogmatic assertion that “feminism solved this long ago once and for all”.

Feminist Times has, as a part of its mission statement, a commitment to listening and giving space to all sections of feminism as long as the discussion remains empathetic and respectful. Part of the background to that commitment is a radical scepticism about the idea that anything has been permanently settled; that any section of feminism has a final and definitive answer to the intellectual challenge that feminism poses to those values of patriarchy and kyriarchy, in which we were all brought up and which surround us every day.

It can be argued, in fact, that any premature assumption of a definitive position’s correctness is almost certainly a hindrance; dogmatic certainty on the part of any section of the community about anything except their own personal experience is going to be problematic when it comes to discussion.

I’ve taken flak from my own trans community over Gender Week. Some trans people feel that, given our embattled status, abstract disscussion of issues around gender is an indulgence we cannot afford. Personally, I don’t for a second think that discussion of gender can ever risk the validation of trans identity; the arguments on our side, and our own diverse experiences of gender, are too strong for anyone to discount them except if they absolutely refuse to listen.

It is, though, the case that a lot of trans people are very vulnerable and a wide-ranging public discussion of gender is going to risk triggering their own doubts and fears and memories of bad times; perhaps neither I nor Feminist Times should have been prepared to take that risk.

In spite of long experience to the contrary, I and we thought that the time had finally come when it would be possible to have a serious discussion that would start the process of healing the rifts within feminism. The editors commissioned a number of pieces from which a respectful and intelligent discussion might have emerged.

Only it did not. Instead, the comments on a number of the pieces, and not only those written by trans people, became unpleasantly abusive in the face of the best efforts of the editors to moderate them. There was little good faith in many of them – well known trans-exclusionary radical feminists did not reveal their preconceptions or even used aliases and sock-puppet accounts.

What happened on the Twitter #genderweek hashtag was even worse. The writers* for that issue of Feminist Times were subjected to unpleasant hate speech including, but not restricted to, constant misgendering. I saw only some of the attacks on me – these were not for the most part serious discussion of my arguments but instead anonymous personal abuse based on my age and looks.

It’s now abundantly clear that serious feminist discussion can’t take place on Twitter without it being hi-jacked for hate speech. I know some people feel that the terms cis and TERF are, or have the potential to become, derogatory; I didn’t see those people complaining when my photo was tweeted with abusive comments.

I had hoped we could have an adult discussion of gender and what we mean by the word; clearly I was culpably naïve and I apologise for thinking that certain women involved in that hashtag are capable of respectful discussion between equals.

Roz Kaveney is a member of the Feminist Times Editorial Board. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.

Following Gender Week, we have revised our editorial comment policy, which is now published here.

*Editor’s note: We asked Roz to write a personal perspective on Gender Week, as a member of our editorial board, as someone who was involved in helping us plan the week, and as someone who received criticism both from radical feminists and trans feminists for her involvement. We are, however, aware that abuse throughout the week – particularly on Twitter – was directed at many of our contributors, not only those who are trans.

We don’t believe, as Roz says, that any one side has a final and definitive answer to the complexities that feminism throws up. Because of this we are committed to respectful, empathic discussion of the differences within feminism, and the varying experiences of those within the movement, and our content will always reflect this. The constructive discussions of our Gender Week content that did take place on Twitter were regretfully at times almost completely drowned out by repetitive and abusive comments from a small minority of individuals.

– Sarah Graham, Deputy Editor.

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9 thoughts on “Why we can’t have nice things: A Gender Week post-mortem

  1. Juliet O

    I’ve got a few issues with this piece. It feels inflammatory to state with such certainty that sock puppet accounts were used by prominent feminists. How could you possibly know? Do you not think this could again be fuelling the fire that you (ostensibly) want to extinguish?

    Equally, I am tired of the well used arguement…’where were you when (name abuse) happened to (someone on my ‘side’ or me). I don’t know. At work? Doing the shopping? Looking after my kids? I can object to the meaning inherent to the term, ‘cis’ without being on hand to publically condemn abuse to the 900 individuals I follow on Twitter. Where were you, Roz, when Flavia Dzodan called several feminists whores and pieces of shit? Where was Natascha Kennedy when Helen Lewis is repeatedly called a cunt by Jude in London? Where was Aunty Sarah when Sarah Ditum is abused? I could go on and on but I only have 66% battery left.

    Gender is loaded with implications for feminists. And yes, they can argue back, passionately and persistently when labels such as Cis and Terf are forced on them and no dissent is brooked. As a class, women have been subjugated for centuries. We have the right to discuss gender and all the oppression it has called us without being called ‘out’, or worse. I will maintain my right to do that and reject, ‘cis’ whilst respecting your right to live as you choose and use the pronouns you choose.

    1. Sarah Brown

      Where was I when Sarah Ditum was abused? No idea. I blocked her months ago for self care reasons. If she wants solidarity, perhaps she might look for it from people who aren’t afraid of her, and those like her?

      1. Woman

        Please explain what you mean by being “afraid” of Sarah Ditum. Is she one of the many feminist writers that causes mass suicides among trans people?

        1. Sarah Brown

          Afraid. Scared of. Frightened. These are plain English words.

          Trans women are frequently afraid of cis women, especially those who hang around in a crowd known for its hostility towards us, and who have the power to make our lives very unpleasant indeed.

          I am frightened of her. I am frightened of Bindel, and Glosswitch, and Burchill, and Criado-Perez, and Helen Lewis, and hell yes, I’m terrified of the really vocal TERFs, who actually go out of their way to take this offline.


  2. Anne

    There was some abuse and unpleasantness on the #genderweek hashtag, but I saw that coming from all sides. I also saw far, far more tweets lamenting the abuse than I did actual abuse, which I actually find really heartening and encouraging.

    It’s unfortunate that some of the discussion took a turn towards the unpleasant, but I’m not sure what the solution is. It most definitely isn’t that we should not attempt to talk about gender any more. However you define gender, it is something that affects every person on the planet, and certainly all women. We all have a right to talk about it, and it can’t be taken off the table because some people’s identity feels threatened when faced with opposing theories. I sympathetic towards trans people, think they deserve to be treated with decency and respect, and should get the treatment they need to feel more at ease. But this does not mean I accept the dominant trans theory of gender, or that I have to believe whatever story a trans person tells me about the nature of gender, because I don’t. It is not hate speech to say that. It is not bigoted or transphobic to be gender critical. To put it bluntly – trans women are not the only women affected by gender. Every woman is. I’m not going to stop talking about it.

  3. Jonah Mix

    I’m disappointed that this article does not mention the abuse received by radical feminists for their belief that women have the right to define their spaces and terminology. I have personally seen threats of rape, abuse, assault, murder, and sexual torture thrown at radical women for the sin of saying that male socialization is something women have the right to organize outside of. But, as always, it is the pronouns of trans* women that matter more than the safety and security of female people.

  4. Zoe Brain

    It was still a useful exercise.

    Trans people can complain about TERFs, but those complaints might be seen by those unfamiliar with the issue as exaggerated.

    But now more have been exposed to the frothing insanity, the irrational hatred, the dishonesty, sockpuppetry and lack of good faith, not by just a few, but the vast majority of trans exclusionary radical feminists.. their actions speak louder than our words.

    It’s not all a lost cause though. Elizabeth Hungerford has started a “gender critical” FB site, which so far has been a haven of rationality. Yes, there’s arrogance and privilege on display, but nothing can alter the basic goodwill and willingness to listen, if not always to hear. I can work with that, and apparently she can too.

  5. Sarah Graham Post author

    Hi all,

    I’ve responded to the above comments in an editor’s note below Roz’s article.

  6. Lil Z

    Sarah Graham says the genderweek hashtag was ‘almost completely drowned out by repetitive and abusive comments from a small minority of individuals’.

    Hmm. I just spent five minutes reading the genderweek hashtag and saw not a single abusive comment from a radfem. What the tag IS dominated by is many, many claims from trans people about how abusive and hateful ‘TERFS’ are, including dramatic claims about how discussions of gender themselves constitute ‘violence’.* But no actual examples of abuse or hatefulness from said ‘TERFS’.

    *As the non-trans-themed articles in Gender Week showed, violence, including violence against trans people, is overwhelmingly committed by men. Women discussing the political implications of gender isn’t violence.


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