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Trousered heroines: Women’s rights and the culture wars

  • 28 April 2022

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