Much of my work is concerned with how stuff we’re taught to believe is ‘natural’, ‘inevitable’ or plain ‘common sense’ is anything but (I’m also interested how it comes to be accepted as natural, inevitable, etc). This is true of class and capitalism. It’s also true of sex and gender. You can’t change sex – biologically, that is impossible. But studying who constructs, sustains, changes and challenges gendered roles, behaviours and norms is central to my work. Gender changes over history. That matters because it shows that, as Simone de Beauvoir said, ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. She meant that gendered norms are socially and politically constructed.
Much of my work foregrounds women’s stories to understand how the inequalities and oppression that women have shared by virtue of their sex have been perpetuated, challenged and at times overcome. I also make the effort to ask why women are absent from the record when they are.
Because women’s right to define ourselves as a sex, to analyse sex-based experiences, and to organise as a sex, have become a matter of debate within and beyond universities, I am involved in ongoing feminist campaigns. I believe that UK law should remain as it is, with sex a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act, against the claim of some trans activists that people should be able to define themselves as men or as women simply by describing themselves as such. I have reached this view for three evidence-based reasons:
- We need women-only spaces. History shows that women are more likely to experience violence at the hands of natal born males.
- We need to be able to collect robust data on sex-based participation in education and employment (for example). Historically and today, women have experienced, and continue to experience, lower rates of pay and poorer job opportunities than men. In many parts of the world they have lower levels of education. We need to be able to measure this, identify the reasons for it, and hopefully remedy the sex discrimination it testifies to.
- The notion that people can ‘feel’ like a woman or like a man is highly socially conservative, implying as it does that being a woman rests on dressing or behaving in a ‘feminine’ way. Being a woman rests both on certain biological facts and on the experience of living in the world as a woman, from birth, an experience that is shaped by particular kinds of oppressions. A movement that claims to be advocating a liberating kind of ‘fluidity’ is in fact reinforcing and promoting highly conservative gendered stereotypes. The claim that some people ‘naturally’ feel feminine is ahistorical, since it overlooks that what is understood as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ has changed over time.
I call on other feminist academics to speak out on women’s rights, and on all academics, regardless of their views, to stand up for evidence-based debate.
I am a strong supporter of Woman’s Place UK