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18Jul

Trans by Helen Joyce; Material Girls by Kathleen Stock – reviews

Two weighty books on the debate around gender-critical feminism and transgender rights strike different tones

Last month, the Royal Academy dropped the feminist artist Jess de Wahls’s work from its gift shop after objections to her views on trans rights. To some, it looked like a textbook case of so-called “cancel culture”, in which anyone challenging the idea that trans women are women in the fullest possible sense supposedly risks a career-ending backlash. But the story did not end there. After a flood of emails from women threatening to boycott the Academy’s exhibitions in protest, the institution swiftly un-cancelled De Wahls, who is now swamped with orders. Something, in short, seems to be shifting.

And that broadly fits the thesis of the Economist writer Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, which argues that a tide is now turning. She sees support for the idea that individuals can change biological sex as a “crony belief”, one people mostly hold to look good in front of others, and that may be dropped quite easily if enough of those others start publicly challenging it. As the former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies, vilified for arguing that trans athletes shouldn’t compete in female sporting categories, puts it: “It’s not that people disagree with me, it’s that they’re frightened of the activists.” Since recent YouGov polling finds falling numbers of Britons strongly agreeing that “a transgender woman is a woman”, and rising numbers either somewhat disagreeing or only somewhat agreeing, Joyce may be right about the broad trajectory of public opinion. Whether you find that heartening or terrifying determines whether you’ll want to read both this book and Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls, or throw them across the room.

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