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Trousered heroines: Women’s rights and the culture wars


The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes by Zoe Playdon, Bloomsbury Publishing 2021

Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality by Helen Joyce, OneWorld 2021

Doublethink: a feminist challenge to transgenderism by Janice G. Raymond, Spinifex Press 2021


When I was at university, an aeon ago, I wrote about Shakespeare’s trousered heroines: Portia, Imogen, Viola. What I marvelled at, then and now, was the prescience of Shakespeare’s perception of how gender stereotypes limit and oppress women. The heroines would enter a male-dominated society dressed as men, sort out the play’s problems and return to their women’s clothing and lives — job done. Clothes didn’t make them actual men — they donned temporary protective identities because women had little agency or freedom. By contrast, Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew chose to fight the unfairness of her life as stereotyped woman and it was as stereotyped woman she was broken — by a man. Her final, defeated, speech describes men, not women, as suffering ‘painful labour’, erasing women’s lived reality.  

This lived reality is now being questioned by gender ideologies that are rolling back a century of progress in women’s rights and safety. Three books about gender politics treat these issues with different skills, methods and points of view: Zoe Playdon, Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of London; Helen Joyce, an executive editor at The Economist; and Janice G. Raymond, Professor Emerita in Women’s Studies and Medical Ethics at The University of Massachusetts.

Playdon brings engaging narrative skills to her story of Ewan Forbes-Sempill’s legal struggle for recognition as the male heir to a Scottish baronetcy in the 1960s. Born in 1912, youngest child of the Lord Sempill, Forbes’ sex was recorded as female, but he lived in adulthood as a man. At 40, he had his birth certificate corrected and married a local woman.

When Forbes’s brother died childless in 1965, a male cousin sued for the inheritance, arguing Forbes was female. The case went to private arbitration in Scotland’s Court of Sessions in 1967. Forbes’ winning argument was that he had an intersex condition in which physical maleness developed as he matured.

Playdon obtained the case records and argues that Forbes was biologically female, and consequently a trans man. She asserts that he falsified medical evidence and goes on to argue that this case created British legal precedent for transgender rights by allowing a person recorded as female at birth to inherit later as a trans man.


'The phenomenon of wholesale ideological capture of governments, corporations and public policy-making bodies needs more investigation than is given here.'


But this ignores the judge’s written formal finding: that Forbes, being ‘hermaphroditic’, had a ‘male-oriented psychology’ that derived from a ‘dominant male physiology’. Moreover, in the case extract I have sourced, the judge went out of his way to say that if Forbes’ case had relied on psychological evidence only, he would have lost. The decision depended entirely on the judge’s acceptance of the medical evidence that Forbes was actually male. Thus Playdon’s central assertion — that this case represented a precedent for transgender rights in British law — fails both there, and also by the fact that a private arbitration in the Scottish Court of Sessions does not form precedent in British law.

Playdon’s argument may be flimsy, but her book is a rattling good read, full of chatty social history and gossipy newspaper snippets. Her sympathy for Forbes is evident, but her assertion that the judgment was pro-transgender rights forces her conclusion without facts. She weaves a persuasive yarn, but with a torrent of speculation, footnotes and large bibliography that do not corroborate her assertions with actual evidence.

Evidence, on the other hand, is what Joyce deals with: her arguments and conclusions follow strong logical lines and her historical backgrounding is clear and relevant. Trans has had favourable reviews in mainstream press overseas, but has been criticised by trans activists for questioning gender ideology. Joyce says her intention is not to attack transgender human rights and dignity; she is concerned about gender ideology’s effects on free speech and thought in civil society, politics and academia. How has the gender ideology movement come to be so powerful against questioning?

Joyce sees the conflict’s roots in the decline of philosophy and of women’s studies as the ascendancy of French postmodernists undermined agreed frameworks concerning the value of language and logic. The rise of US academic Judith Butler’s gender ideology has been meteoric and its adherents are fervent. Gone are open discussions between left and right, traditionalist and reformer: the mantra is ‘no debate’ — a travesty of liberal arts education.

Joyce claims that a small number of American billionaire trans activists have been funding Butlerian gender studies and lobbying global policymaking bodies; she also argues that pharmaceutical company profits are a compelling motivation to push experimental and irreversible drug therapies on gender-dysphoric children, creating clients for life. However, the phenomenon of wholesale ideological capture of governments, corporations and public policy-making bodies needs more investigation than is given here.

One disturbing case she recounts has had widespread media coverage: that of ‘Kai’: a child born male who wished to wear dresses. His mother, a Texan fundamentalist Christian and unabashed homophobe, said in a 2017 documentary that having a gay son ‘could not happen’, and she would ‘really spank’ the toddler for asserting ‘I’m a girl’. The transitioning of the child took place at age four: ‘I now have a happy … beautiful sweet little girl who loves Jesus and loves her brothers’. If this is not homophobic conversion therapy, I don’t know what is.

Joyce recounts studies showing that when gender-nonconforming children were allowed to be themselves without pressured intervention, they overwhelmingly developed into healthy gay adults. Unlike Shakespeare’s trousered girls, transed youngsters can’t simply go back to a healthy functioning body. This is corroborated in Reddit’s r/detrans |Detransition subreddit, which has over 25,000 subscribers – the stories make piteous reading. Many say that they needed emotional support and mental health therapy rather than the gender clinics’ automatic affirmation protocols. They describe a rush to treat them as though they were literally born in ‘wrong bodies’. They describe expriences of surgeries that have left them mutilated; hormone therapy has left them with permanent voice and hair changes, kidney and liver damage, osteoporosis, sterility, incontinence and sexual dysfunction.


'The rights and wrongs of what has happened in recent years regarding the experience and sufferings of transgender people have ended up as a polarised and difficult area of discourse, affecting women’s lives and rights far more than men’s.'


They were asked to consent to such treatments when their juvenile personalities were still forming, before their brains were fully able to grasp the full implications. The coming flood of litigation will be interesting, since gender clinics routinely require clients to sign boilerplate indemnity documents.

The collision between trans activists’ demands and women’s and children's rights isn’t going away. Should male-bodied convicts be able to identify as women in order to be placed in women’s prisons? Should lesbians be expected to accept trans women as sexual partners? Trans documents the colonisation of women’s sports and the erasure of female-specific words such as ‘mother’ and ‘women’ in favour of dehumanising terms such as ‘birthing bodies’ and ‘menstruators’. It raises the question, are transgender activists demanding equality — or privilege?

Joyce urges readers to address all people’s needs and rights, saying that liberal secular democracies should not privilege one belief system, quoting transgender people who feel unsupported by the juggernaut of the extreme trans activist movement.

Janice Raymond traces a similar path, but with the vigour and passion of someone who has experienced the kind of academic censorship and personal attacks that Helen Joyce documents. Raymond has had a stellar career both as a respected academic in women’s studies and as a campaigner against the trafficking and exploitation of women.

As a gender-critical lesbian, however, she has experienced discrimination, even violence, from all sides. Here, in Doublethink, the gloves are off. She sees trans activism as an extension of the patriarchal subjugation of women, offering searing evidence of misogyny and homophobia in the imposition of sexual stereotyping and the pervasiveness of Orwellian compelled language: rape victims have been ordered under threat of contempt of court to refer to their transgender rapists as ‘she’. She investigates the rapid rollout of trans activist policies in governments, academia, sports and corporations.

Raymond’s anger is patent, but the argument is necessarily clear and well-evidenced, for lesbians are vulnerable and marginalised, with many organisations no longer supporting them when they refuse trans women as sexual partners. Her disillusion with the left is patent: women, long oppressed by those on the right who deny them control over their own bodies, must now cope with those on the left who deny them safe spaces and the right to speak their own truth.

The rights and wrongs of what has happened in recent years regarding the experience and sufferings of transgender people have ended up as a polarised and difficult area of discourse, affecting women’s lives and rights far more than men’s. In the current situation, Raymond is a clear voice about the erosion of women’s rights and safety in what should be the safest, most pluralistic arena of all: academia. For anyone wishing for a general introduction, Trans is valuable. If you like historical speculation, try The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes.




Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer. 

Main image: Woman standing against rainbow lights (Qi Yang / Getty Images). 

Topic tags: Juliette Hughes, Book, Review, Women's Rights, Trans, Activism, Feminism



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Existing comments

This is an extremely insightful article on a subject which is a ticking time bomb, Juliette. I am unsurprised that, so far, there has been little comment on it. To comment pertinently on it a person would have to be as intelligent, well read in a variety of fields and as across the subject as you. They would have to be like the three women whose books you have reviewed, all expert on the subject and genuine, wide ranging experts, not mere opinionati.

Edward Fido | 29 April 2022  
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Edward, I certainly don't disagree with the generality of your comment but suggest you've ventured an interesting proposition, that other than persons "like the three women..." a comment might be impertinent, particularly that the article pertains to female identity, whether female by origin, adaption or circumstances. Are we approaching a phase of free speech that in presenting a topic that is a litter of eggshells and land mines to be tip-toed around in silence for fear of reproach that one cannot be qualified to have or express an opinion unless they are "like the author". I don't challenge this article but frequently very learned, expert texts present flawed logic or rhetoric which if unchallenged purely because the nature of an article is fragile, sensitive territory escapes critique. Juliette writes some hard-hitting stuff and I'll admit that I'd be reluctant to challenge her techniques; I'm not likely to read the reference literature and am happy to accept the article on face value. We've witnessed the tirade of both cancel culture and liberalism towards a politician with an opinion on the Trans quandary; is society to be guided how to think only by an exclusive group of experts due to their delicately unquestionable exacting science?

ray | 30 April 2022  

Kai Shappley's operating principle is that God does not make mistakes. That's true, but God has two wills, an active will which represents his opinion about how things should be, and his permissive will as to what he will allow to happen as respect for the free will of humans.

God does not make mistakes but he allows mistakes to happen. In fact, most of the history of medical science is testimony to the fact that he allows mistakes to happen, or individuals would be morally obliged to accept all of the imperfections with which they were born, forsaking any treatment by the likes of our Dr. John Frawley to alleviate them. In fact, under such a thinking, Dr. Frawley would be engaging in abomination by not letting things remain as they are. As a matter of fact, each of us has two wills, our original preference and what we choose to live with.

As is the case when two phenomena of the same type exist, a comparison has to be made by the logical mind (if it claims to be a logical mind) between the godly wills. As a result, the active will, being the original will which existed before Lucifer, has to take precedence over the permissive will which, like Moses' permission to divorce, is a concession to the stiff-neckedness of humans but which, in the beginning, was not so.

That is not a strange idea because there is a moral difference between our original preference and our practical preference (which is usually a result of a moral compromise).

Kai Shappley is 11. Perhaps, in due course, (s)he will study theology and work out how God's two wills applies to himself. He might wonder if Christ's question 'Which is easier? To say your sins are forgiven or rise up and walk' applies to gender-transition surgery where the claim is that because it is easy to re-sculpt the body, therefore the re-sculpt of the mind is proved to be legitimate. Of course, that logic fails because in order to prove that the re-sculpt of the mind is legitimate, the re-sculpt of the body's chromosomal configuration has to occur. As yet, that is not possible, at least not without interfering with the egg and semen of the biological parents before or after fertilisation. But, if interference occurs, that is a scam and doesn't prove the case.

roy chen yee | 29 April 2022  

A pertinent article. It’s interesting to note the swiftness of societal preoccupation with transgenderism. Just ten years ago, something called gender dysphoria was exceedingly rare. In the UK, between 2010 and 2018, there was a 4,400 per cent increase in those seeking sexual reassignment, the majority being adolescent girls. Many teenage girls are insecure, suggestable, and susceptible to fashion fads. And in the USA in 2011, self-identified transgender Americans comprised around 0.3 percent of the population. That doubled by 2016, and by 2019, a Minnesota survey found that 3 percent of adolescents now identify as transgender. But when sociologists such as Mark Regnerus point out this bizarre and rapid social transformation, they get persecuted by aggressive transgender advocates. So do feminist icons like Germain Greer and J. K. Rowling. These radical transgender advocates have pushed for, and got, their radical ideologies taught in primary schools.
One suspects radicals are using transgenderism to advance an agenda. One psychiatrist noted that when people assent to obvious lies or are forced to repeat them: “they lose once and for all their sense of probity…One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control.”

Ross Howard | 29 April 2022  

The critical issues raised here by Juliette Hughes reflect a broader context of the West's current, largely Nietzschean, preoccupation with the self as an autonomous agent possessing absolute licence to create and define its own identity regardless of an objective moral and social order of which God is the author - an order accessible, in Catholic understanding, by both reason and faith.

John RD | 30 April 2022  

I do not think the extremely simplistic Scholastic theologizing really gives this subject or this article the respect and credit they deserve, in fact, I think completely misses the point of both. As far as I understand this article and the books reviewed, especially those by Joyce and Raymond, they are extremely apt critiques of what I would term 'the academic and medical transgender industry'. This is a huge and vastly controversial minefield and one I think many respected theologians would, quite rightly in my opinion, steer well clear of. It is very much a feminist issue to me and I say this as an older, heterosexual male with some religious belief. Many genuine Christian feminists (you can very much be both simultaneously) such as Joan Rowling, have been 'cancelled' for what they have said on the matter. The successful suing of the Tavistock Clinic in London by a young female who was irreversibly physically altered is a sign to me that the tide is not just flowing one way. I believe Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Health, is having the Tavistock Clinic investigated. The battle is not over. It is now at a crucial stage.

Edward Fido | 30 April 2022  

The gender ideology movement is big business, big money and sophisticated propaganda. Unfortunately, in the mainstream media the "debate" is conducted in slogans, three-word sentences. So it is good to read Juliette Hughes' solid article, one that considers three books on the subject.

Feminists, lesbians, and those who assert women's rights are being defunded, dismissed from their employment and refused the right to meet. I would think that most Australians are unaware that this sort of discrimination is going on, although some might have heard of the treatment of JK Rowling.

Here is are two local examples of what is happening to women in Australia:

Sydney City Council's defunding of the Feminist Legal Clinic after it supported The Declaration of Women's Sex-Based Rights.

The ruling that in Tasmania it is illegal to host a single-sex space.

I you want to read a personal account of transitioning and de-transitioning I recommend Max Robinson's "Detransition" Beyond Before and After" Spinifex Press, 2021.

Janet | 30 April 2022  

There are underlying questions that I suggest that Catholics who are concerned about the gender-identity movement ask, about patriarchy and the attitude of the Vatican to women, about the power wielded by the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. We need to question our entire social-political-economic system, that continues to enact,condone and excuse violence against women, as Ulrike Marwitz points out in another article in this issue of Eureka Street. We could begin by questioning the sense of entitlement that is central to our society's understanding of masculinity.

Janet | 30 April 2022  

John RD raises an interesting point. I would suggest Nietzsche leads directly to the dreadful Russian Nihilism of the late 19th - early 20th Centuries which leads directly to Marxism with all its totalitarian horrors. Having said that, I do not think Modern Feminism is part of that cycle, but proceeds out of the societal trends which led to the Rise of the Suffragettes and the Campaign of Votes for Women. In their time the Suffragettes were condemned and violently dealt with by the authorities, including the police. Now, of course, we know their cause was just. What Juliette, the women whose books she is reviewing here and countless other feminists are objecting to is a perversion of both Feminism and Women's Rights by the rise of Judith Butler's gender theory out of the French postmodernist deconstructionism. Butler has now become unarguable in many academic and open forums and anyone who contests her views will be 'cancelled' like Joan Rowling and may well, in some cases, lose funding or employment. Juliette further makes the associated and very relevant point that this Butlerian orthodoxy is being used by men, in the instances she quotes, to oppress women. I find her argument perfectly valid.

Edward Fido | 02 May 2022  
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You make some relevant distinctions, Edward, and I agree with your analysis of Judith Butler's postmodernist Theory. However, I'm surprised that you recognize no connection between contemporary feminism and Marxist theory and practice.
I think complementarity between the sexes is more conducive to healthy relationship, interaction and the common good of society than the conflict model pursued by radical feminism.

John RD | 04 May 2022  

What exactly is "the attitude of the Vatican to women"?. In my considerable number of years as a Catholic, I can't recall any promulgations by the Vatican regarding an attitude to women other than respect for all women and positioning them on a pedestal as it positions Mary, the mother of God. The feminist movement (second wave) made the mistake of stepping down from the pedestal and entering the less than elevated position of the male. This attitudinal change, in the mistaken belief that it would impart some nebulous power to women, has contributed nothing of value but much distress to Christian society.

john frawley | 02 May 2022  
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John Frawley, women might be on a pedestal but, unfortunately, if they attempt to speak they will be pushed off it.

Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, Doctor of Canon Law from the Pontifical Gregorian University, has described the Roman Catholic Church as "an empire of misogyny".

In 2018, Mary McAleese was invited to speak at the Voices of Faith Conference on International Women's Day. Cardinal Keven Farrell banned Mary McAleese from speaking in the Vatican. Voices of Faith responded by shifting the site of their conference to the Jesuit Conference Centre, outside the Vatican.

Transcript of the address:

Video of the address:

Janet | 13 May 2022  

Mary McAleese wants to change a Church about a Man into a Church about Us. If the Church is about ‘Us’, collectively male and female with males and females about the same in terms of higher brain function, she might be correct to support an outcome of a Church in which there are no apostles, only disciples.

But the Church is about the Man and following his example, even to the extent that red martyrdom is praiseworthy and the kind of thing that could make you an official saint of the Church. So, what did the Man do? He selected twelve from the disciples whom he designated apostles. When one of them went bad, he didn’t choose a replacement but obligated the eleven to choose the twelfth (to maintain a connection to the Old Testament and the twelve tribes of Israel) after he had ascended. He made the chief of the twelve the rock upon which the Church would be built. Because Peter as homo sapiens only had a finite lifespan, the interpretation is that the Church would always be built upon a chief apostle. Well, you can’t have a chief apostle if there are no apostles from whom to choose, and it was only the apostles, not Mary or any other person in the Upper Room, who chose Matthias. And pretty much all that we know about Matthias from the Holy Spirit’s editorship of Scripture is that he was male, even though in that room were sterling women such as Mary the mother of Jesus and very probably the other Mary, and Veronica, and so on.

McAleese’s ‘misogyny’ is that women are not priests. If they were, the system that Jesus himself instituted, that the leaders of the Church are apostles, that apostles choose apostles (and those who might become apostles in the future, ie., the priests), and that apostles from the beginning were chosen from male disciples, would have been discarded.

New Testament Scripture was written after the Ascension. Between baptism by John and then, the only way to learn about Jesus was to watch what he did, rather like a young dog imitating an older dog, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. Since then, the text of Scripture, the text of canon law and the historical events which make up Tradition derive validity from the principle of watching for how Jesus would have acted. Why, in the matter of priesthood within the apostolic character of the Catholic Church, does McAleese think that Jesus would have changed his operating procedure? Was Mary the mother of Jesus, say 18 years plus 33 years, unfit to have been designated an ‘apostle’? Was a woman not chosen to spare her from the indignities leading to martyrdom? Unlikely. Perhaps that’s why John wasn’t martyred, to dispose of the idea that a woman disciple was to be saved from the indignities leading to martyrdom.

The basis of Tradition is to ask what would Jesus have done, and you can’t do that without looking at what he actually did.

roy chen yee | 16 May 2022  

Roy Chen Yee (16/5) recognizes the relevance of Christ's masculinity to his Incarnation and its importance as an antidote to docetic gnosticism that threatened to distort God's self-revelation from early in the Church's history. That Christ was male also has relevance, as Roy maintains, for the theological understanding of the ordained priest's sacramental status as an "alter Christus" in the Catholic Church, as well as the historical substantiality of the Apostolic tradition.

John RD | 20 May 2022  

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