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Sexed by Susanna Rustin Review: The Fraught Battle for Feminism
Josephine Butler fought for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s. Photograph: Science History Images/Alamy

Sex and gender have emerged as pivotal issues in the general election, underscoring the timely relevance of Susanna Rustin’s insightful book, Sexed: A History of British Feminism. Kemi Badenoch, the women and equalities minister, has pledged that the Conservatives will reinforce existing rights to single-sex spaces in places like prisons and refuges, accessible only by biological women. She staunchly defends the belief that “biological sex is real, important, immutable and not to be conflated with gender identity", a perspective already legally protected in the UK.

On the other hand, Labour has somewhat ambiguously committed to modernizing the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. This includes a shift from allowing self-identification of gender without medical evidence to maintaining the need for such evidence, avoiding questions like “Can a woman have a penis?"

According to Rustin, sex-based rights are fundamental to feminism, and defending these rights isn’t transphobic. She argues that the advocacy for these rights has sparked a decade-long grassroots revival of the women’s movement. This includes landmark cases like Maya Forstater’s, which established that it is illegal to discriminate against holders of gender-critical views.

The debate, however, remains heated and contentious, marked by insults, false accusations, damaged reputations, lost careers, and canceled events. Defenders of sex as a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act have been labeled as Terfs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Rustin contends that biology must be acknowledged for practical reasons, such as addressing female cancers, birth control, fertility, and male violence against women and girls.

Conversely, some trans activists and academics argue that sex is already intertwined with gender. They believe identity is a matter of choice, even if it means that a convicted male sex offender self-identifying as a woman has the right to be in a women’s prison. Gender-critical feminists like Rustin argue that as long as patriarchy exists, biological women deserve protection from its excesses.

In Sexed, Rustin delves into why the current feminist focus is so tightly wound around sex and gender, amidst other inequalities that persist. Her book traverses 230 years of feminism, starting with Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Women, moving through the developments in feminist economics, and culminating in today’s sex-based rights movement.

Rustin organizes her examination into bite-sized chapters focusing on different facets like rebels, crusaders, suffragists, and housewives. This structured approach tries to make sense of the chaotic and contradictory nature of feminism throughout history.

An underlying theme of the book is the paradox at feminism’s core. Women have been treated as "other" than men, seen as inferior both mentally and physically, supposedly better suited to domestic life. Yet there has been a movement towards shedding these man-made notions of femininity to gain equality. By doing so, Rustin suggests, distinctions between biological men and women have been blurred over the years. Notably, in 1932, Winifred Holtby suggested replacing “sex” with “gender” to shed the biological connotations that held women back.

Readers, whether seasoned feminists or newcomers, will find valuable insights in Rustin’s Sexed. It is a tribute to the pioneers of the women’s movement who broke into male-exclusive spaces. For instance, Barbara Bodichon co-founded Girton College, Cambridge, and launched the English Woman’s Journal in the 1850s, which covered topics like poverty, factory conditions, sex work, and politics.

Josephine Butler led the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s, which mandated compulsory checks for sex workers but not their clients. Her campaign was significant as it showcased the radical direct-action tactics of the British women’s movement, influencing future suffragettes.

Feminism, as Rustin emphasizes, is more than just about individual figures, no matter how charismatic. The dynamic involves constant division and dispute between radical separatists and more conservative elements. Rustin firmly believes that reconciling the needs of feminists advocating for sex-based rights and transgender people seeking recognition of their gender identity is possible. How this can be achieved remains open to discussion.

Despite the current climate, Rustin remains optimistic about the future for women and girls. Her book, Sexed, serves as a potent reminder of the significant strides women have achieved in the face of adversity, driven by a sense of injustice. This enduring spirit is why pessimism rarely finds a place in the women’s movement.

Source: Guardian, Science History Images/Alamy