A fairly good book presenting the opinions of a second-wave feminist, only to be tainted by TERF-adjacent opinions towards the end. Worth reading if you can stomach it.

Sometimes I pick up random books from the “new books” display at my university library. (Okay, not just sometimes. I have over 25 books gathered in the last year.) I look at titles and back covers and borrow what seems interesting. This helps me not only discover new scholars, but also extend my knowledge range into new fields.

This one particular book, Am I A Feminist? Are You? though, isn’t academic. It’s an essay collection, organized alphabetically (from Actor to Zita), about a range of topics that aren’t necessarily all feminist, but are still all thought-provoking and exceedingly well-written.

Mary Kenny is a second-wave feminist, born in the 1940s in Ireland. I’m starting to get a feeling that second-wave feminism was a no-nonsense movement grounded in the material realities of women: access to bank accounts and property, ability to divorce, contraception and abortion, and the like. Their fight was different from our fight, and a schism appears when the things that they fought for so vehemently appear to be (mostly) givens for us now.

Kenny seems a little baffled by 21st century feminism: its emphasis on culture and attitudes and behaviour appear to her to be things that can’t be changed as easily as laws that didn’t allow women to get a bank account without a man’s signature. As she rightly notes in “Sexual consent laws”:

the law cannot easily with the secret signals of the heart and the eyes, which may be interpreted in any which way.

Overall, you may or may not agree with some of her takes: that biology matters, that quotas for women in the boardroom may not be the best idea, that anti-choice people may have the moral high ground on abortion. They certainly made me think differently about these issues, even though I deeply disagree with certain points of view she holds. (The sections on transgender issues and language may rub you the wrong way, and they did for me.) But the best thing about this book is the writing. Tight, concise, to the point, with punchy last sentences that just left me breathless. Like Seth Godin, but better and feminist.

Whenever I read new material, I try to approach it with an open mind. Writers do not exist in a vacuum, and they come with their own lifetime of knowledge and experiences. Reading this book made me aware that disagreement and dissent are essential to a healthy public discourse–as long as this dissent doesn’t dehumanize or erase other people, of course. I thought she generally achieves a good balance of expressing unpopular opinions with respecting that others may have different views… until I reached the T section.

(CN: TERFiness.)

light skinned woman with brown hair lying on bed holding a book

Most controversially, she argues that TERFs shouldn’t be “no-platformed” (silenced) because of their opinions. She appears supportive of Jordan Peterson’s move to refuse to use people’s preferred pronouns. This, for some people, might be enough to throw the whole book away, and I totally understand if you did that. I was angry and upset when I read those two essays, because the rest had been quite good so far. If you don’t want to read that, then don’t pick up this book.

I am in absolute disagreement with her on these issues because we shouldn’t give voice to people who deny the humanity of a group of people, especially a group as oppressed as trans people. I was absolutely shocked that she seemed to approve of Peterson, who is now basically a Nazi apologist. Maybe if she had written the book today she would have a different perspective. These essays are towards the end, and they ended up tainting the rest for me. If she is unable to accept that transgender people have a valid claim to their identity, and that psychology, biology and neuroscience are further supporting them, then I wonder what she needs to be convinced. I don’t think she is a full-on TERF herself, but she has TERF-adjacent opinions that make her suspect to me.

You can make up your own mind by reading the book. Maybe she is simply explaining that other people have a right to their own points of view, but she doesn’t disentangle herself from these points of view enough for my tastes.

You may (rightly so) see her as an old feminist in the vein of Greer and Stein, who still seem stuck in biologically essentialist explanations of gender and sex. But I find value in “reading the adversary”, in understanding worldviews different from my own in order to argue for my own views better. And you may end up admiring the deftness of her writing, if only for itself rather than for what it is saying.

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