by Clare Hemmings
This introduction is based on the initial comments given at the above workshop as part of Transnational ‘Anti-Gender’ Movements and Resistance: Narratives and Interventions project and is also a way of framing some of the blog posts from that day being published in Engenderings.
Since the summer of 2021, the Department of Gender Studies has been subject to repeated attacks – personal and institutional threats, social media allegations and harassment – by anti-gender activists. Our departmental profile has been under constant surveillance by anti-gender activists, who have always been critical of feminist work that challenges sex as the essence of politics. In the UK these activists have joined the right wing led ‘culture wars’ that are also critical of anti-racist knowledge production and action and have been consistently and vocally challenging trans and gender non-binary claims to integrity. They are the architects of highly coordinated attacks that have learned the intersectional lessons many queer and feminist thinkers also need to get up to speed on, and that claim victimhood and marginality as their own territory.
During Autumn and Winter 2022 and into 2023, this surveillance moved into an aggressive and ongoing smear campaign against the department following serious allegations against one member of faculty. It’s a surreal and powerless feeling, in a department that has worked tirelessly to promote and develop feminist, queer and anti-racist knowledge for 30 years, to find yourselves called upon to make statements making clear you do not promote sexual violence against children and do not oppose women’s liberation. At times that feels so bizarre that you wonder if you are in an X Files episode. But such are the times and affects we live within.
The surveillance that trans-inclusive, anti-racist feminism and gender studies is under is unrelenting and targets individuals as well as collectives as part of what we know are core tactics. In Brazil, Judith Butler was burned in effigy; in Hungary, the closure of the Gender Studies programme was accompanied by vitriolic personal attacks on Andrea Pető; and Kimberlé Crenshaw has recently been lengthily and personally attacked for the development of CRT in the Daily Mail.[i] And the anti-gender attacks on the Department of Gender Studies use the same tactics: general and specific – threats to our collective work – framing it as misguided at best or actively promoting violence against women at worst – and a message on my answerphone the same day asking whether I am a rapist or a rape-apologist in the most surreal sweetly feminine voice I have ever heard.
So how to respond to the attacks on feminist, queer, anti-racist knowledge that have taken decades – even centuries – to develop, and that feel like they could be obliterated in less than one? How to gather ourselves in the face of the ongoing affective challenges of being accused of the very things we have spent so much time identifying, resisting, transforming?
That summer of 2021 Professor Sumi Madhok and I decided – in a moment of angry folly, a rather more healthy set of affects – to respond in the manner we’re most familiar with: through our intellectual commitments. And thus an application to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for the current network project ‘Transnational “Anti-Gender” Movements and Resistance’ was born, and importantly or incredibly, was successful. We want to do several things with this network. First: We want to provide a context for those of us working at LSE to navigate the difficult times we are in across our community, and to provide a context for an ongoing conversation about the importance of ‘gender’ in contemporary politics. Second, we want to put anti-gender violence in transnational context: to link the forms of anti-gender aggression that are at the centre of the UK’s current ‘culture wars’ to iterations past and present across the world. That’s why the scope of the project is expansive, and the connections between them the main focus. Third: We want to generate exchanges with people who have been working on resisting anti-feminist, anti-migrant, anti-LGBTQ violence for many decades and to enable conversations to emerge that could help sustain resistance. Hence the 30-strong transnational advisory board, some of whom were able to make it to the December 2nd workshop (others could not, because of refused visas or refusal to apply and be part of the brutality of that system). Lastly, we want to make clear that forms of aggression are always met with resistance and to provide an intellectual environment to have sustained (rather than primarily reactive) conversations about the significant impact of anti-gender movements.
It can feel surreal and powerless to be accused of misogyny, and to try and untangle the strange and often incomprehensible claims of anti-gender activists and rhetoric that sex essentialists occupy the margins, that women assigned female at birth are under threat, not from the usual suspects – men assigned male from birth – but from trans or non-binary people. And so it is tempting to respond to this strange landscape with equal fervency, drawing on the breadth of work pointing to the fallaciousness of gender-critical claims to marginality, or to the lack of trans- or anti-racist dominance in any sphere of social and institutional life.[ii] It’s so useful to have that, so important, but we have to complement that with attention to the affective and ethical sites where meaning is being made and transferred.
We can’t be resilient and provide real intellectual and political contexts of encounter if we respond to attack through what Alyosxa Tudor described (in their paper at the first AHRC workshop) as ‘automatism’.[iii] We have to be able to respond to ‘anti-gender’ attacks from a place of clear values and ethics, rather than only occupying the terrain of legal threats or relativist claims. That’s why a sustained insistence that theories and practices of sexual violence, for example, don’t belong to trans-exclusive subjects and strands, is so important – so that we don’t turn away from the question of how to combat violence even while we are accused of it, and so that we can remain accountable to those most targeted by it and who have survived it.
We have to be bold, too, and draw on what we already know in order to counter a pervasive history of some feminisms as always or necessarily trans-exclusive. I’ve been re-reading work by materialist feminist Christine Delphy[iv] and radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon,[v] whose profound attachments to ‘woman’ as the effect of heteronormative reproductive labour or the subject of sexual oppression, respectively, are not always or necessarily anti-trans. It’s too easy, in my view, to believe that radical feminism is the enemy of a queer, decolonial feminism, but that belief is exactly how questions of sexual violence fall out of the picture so easily. And it’s also important to say that we won’t all agree with all trans-inclusive feminisms either – I’m not a big fan of an abolitionist position that includes trans women in the horrors of the sex industry only to seek intervention by the state; and I remain to be persuaded of a materialist understanding of ‘woman’ as a product of domestic labour without attention to other kinds of labour. These are not essentialist theories either, they are determinist ones. Dismissing as essentialist all feminist thinking that relies on an assertion of ‘womanhood’ as the primary site of oppression misses the different ways in which that exclusivity has been fleshed out; and it also misses the ways in which trans-inclusivity is not always based on a critique of ‘womanhood’ but its expansion. We may want to be in a more productive dialogue with these determinist theories to help bring to the fore the kinds of histories that reframe affect and ethics away from oppositions that won’t do us any good in the end.[vi]
We’ve got to do the work and we’ve got to show up for one another. That individual targeting isn’t going anywhere and we have to make a commitment to building connections beyond the institutions we work in, so that people who are most vulnerable within them feel like they have options. Solidarity has been everywhere evident as the best and only response to the contemporary ‘culture wars’ in fact. The AHRC network has already been a source of enormous solidarity. And in the last 6 months I’ve had more concern and thoughtfulness come my way than aggression. The students I teach at the LSE have been so brilliant in their thinking and development of their own community. The response to attacks on our department has been to spend long hours together reflecting and building alliances, as well as having extremely difficult conversations. These are times of vulnerability, hopelessness, confusion and high anxiety. But they are also times of proximity and care; good to know we’ll be caught and held when we fall, isn’t it?
Transnational ‘Anti-Gender’ Movements and Resistance: Narratives and Interventions is a project led by LSE Professors Clare Hemmings and Sumi Madhok, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and LSE Knowledge Exchange and Impact.
This new research network maps the narrative building blocks – the political grammars, conceptual vocabularies, rhetoric, figures, and temporalities – of both ‘anti-gender ideology’ interventions and the political struggles and solidarities engendered in resistance. For more information about the project and upcoming workshops, visit the website here.
Clare Hemmings is Professor of Feminist Theory in the Department of Gender Studies at LSE. She works across feminist and queer studies exploring the political and epistemological impact of the stories we tell about these fields. Her books include Bisexual Spaces (2002), Why Stories Matter (2011) and Considering Emma Goldman (2018). Her current work is on affect and temporality in ‘anti-gender’ discourse and on family stories.
[i] Andrea Pető on Gender and Illiberalism,” illiberalism.org, March 14, 2022, https://www.illiberalism.org/andrea-peto-on-gender-and-illiberalism; Sonia Corrêa, “Interview: The Anti-Gender Offensive as State Policy,” Conectas, March 7, 2020, https://www.conectas.org/en/noticias/interview-the-anti-gender-offensive-as-state-policy
[ii] Shakuntala Banaji and Ramnath Bhat’s brilliant new book Social Media and Hate evidences the extreme aggression towards minorities online as articulated through proponents’ temporal fantasies of having already been dismissed (and thus already victimized). Shakuntala Banaji and Ramnath Bhat, Social Media and Hate (London: Routledge, 2022). See also this statement on the baseless claims about trans people as aggressive as a central technique to generate support for anti-trans violence: https://www.lemkininstitute.com/statements-new-page/statement-on-the-genocidal-nature-of-the-gender-critical-movement%E2%80%99s-ideology-and-practice
[iii] Tudor, ‘Narratives of Transnational Resistance II’, Paper at Transnational “Anti-Gender” Politics and Resistance, December 2, 2022.
[iv] E.g. Christine Delphy, “Un féminisme matérialiste est possible,’ ‘Mon Dieu! C’est la révolution et je suis encore en peignoir!” Nouvelles Questions Féministes 4 (1982): 50–86.
[v] See: Cristan Williams, “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: The TransAdvocate interviews Catharine A. MacKinnon,” The TransAdvocate, 2015, https://www.transadvocate.com/sex-gender-and-sexuality-the-transadvocate-interviews-catharine-a-mackinnon_n_15037.htm.
[vi] See a forthcoming article which elaborates on this argument about the importance of determinist rather than essentialist feminisms for thinking again about the history of trans-inclusive feminisms: Clare Hemmings (2023) ‘“But I thought we’d already won that argument!”: “Anti-gender” Mobilizations, Affect, and Temporality’, Feminist Studies 50th Anniversary Issue.