Feminism or Conservatism: Which Is to Blame for Trans Ideology?
A debate over the cause of trans ideology has erupted. Can both parties be correct? Or are they, perhaps, both slightly off-base?
Many of us formerly-liberal, scientifically-minded, not-so-religious types now find ourselves perpetually bewildered by the contemporary debates surrounding transgenderism. The term “politically homeless” frequently resonates in our circles. We are often bemused to find ourselves aligning with individuals on social media who contradict our beliefs on many other issues, finding relief in their common-sense discourse and well-articulated criticism on the topic of gender identity.
This scenario was starkly illustrated last week when conservative commentator Matt Walsh directed sharp criticism towards author and journalist Helen Joyce on his show, which he uploaded to X (formerly known as Twitter). This was in reaction to pointed remarks Joyce made about him in a podcast interview with Michael Shermer a year ago.
Before we dive into the substance of their disagreement, let me start by saying that as a woman holding a PhD in a predominantly male-dominated, math-adjacent field, and someone who has grown up considering feminism as synonymous with women’s equal rights, I relate to and admire Joyce, who earned a PhD in mathematics prior to pursuing her journalism career. I appreciate her logical reasoning and the coherent arguments she employs. Surprisingly, I find myself frequently in agreement with Walsh too, despite his conservative Christian background. His methodical breakdown of many issues into their essential components often resonates with me. Joyce and Walsh share this rhetorical style, with both frequently emphasizing the need for precise language to accurately depict reality.
So far, so good. However, their perspectives diverge significantly when addressing the origins and perpetuation of the modern transgender movement.
On Michael Shermer’s podcast, Joyce placed considerable blame on Walsh and similarly aligned conservatives for their role in contributing to the rise in children, mostly young girls, choosing to medically transition, which she believes stems from a conservative and traditionalist insistence on adhering to rigid sex roles. Joyce said:
[T]he problem…is that both conservatives like Matt Walsh and the gender ideologues that he’s mocking…both believe that gender stereotypes and gender roles are inherent to what it is to be a woman. One side uses them to define what a woman is, [and] Matt Walsh thinks they’re inseparable. He understands that a man is a male person and a woman is a female person, but he thinks a whole load of things follow from that; about whose in charge, who makes the sandwiches, whose voice gets heard, and all of this sort of thing. Well if you give your average teenage girl the choice between cutting off her breasts, taking testosterone, and having a shot at being seen as the half of humanity that’s regarded as truly human, or accepting that she’s Matt Walsh’s wife in the kitchen making sandwiches and asking him to open the jar…she’ll cut her tits off and take testosterone. So, he’s part of the problem.
There needs to be a genuinely liberatory message to kids, which is yes sex is real, yes sex differences are real—don’t let that hold you back. And this is particularly important for a group that of course Matt Walsh doesn’t give a shit about, namely gay kids, because there’s a strong connection between being very gender nonconforming in early youth and growing up to be gay. Every homophobe knows that. If you’ve got some little boy who wants to wear his sister’s tutu and play with her Barbie dolls, there’s a much stronger chance that boy is going to grow up gay than a boy who isn’t doing that. It’s not set in stone, but it’s a stronger chance. Matt Walsh wants that boy buzz-cut and out there shooting. The gender ideologues want his dick chopped off and turned into a girl. I want him to grow up into a happy gay man who marries whoever the fuck he likes.
Walsh disagrees, and responded by laying full blame at the feet of gender-critical feminists like Joyce, and their intellectual antecedents, for the rise in youth rapidly adopting trans ideology and opting out of their sex. He states:
The gender critical feminists…are critical of trans ideology, but they don’t understand how their own movement created it. The feminists are the ones who first argued that men and women are basically the same aside from meaningless anatomical differences. They are the ones who declared that most sex differences are “social constructs”—sound familiar? …For many decades, if anybody argued that women can compete with men in sports and do everything men can do, it would have been a feminist. Now that argument primarily comes from trans activists, and you want to pretend that they aren’t saying exactly what your club has been saying for like a century? It’s absurd.
Both employ their trademark logic to produce arguments that are at least internally consistent, igniting the question: Can both parties be correct? Or are they, perhaps, both slightly off-base?
Discourse surrounding this topic often elicits broad, categorical statements that frequently fail to capture the entire complexity of the issue. The remainder of this essay will attempt to navigate a middle path between Joyce’s and Walsh’s divergent positions, because a wide spectrum of perspectives is needed to achieve our common goal of dismantling the concept of gender identity and protecting women and children—especially girls—from its harms.
Walsh’s arguments are rooted deeply in his religious beliefs, a fact he often makes clear. Although this stance may invite scorn from the secular Left, it’s worth noting that many evolutionary biologists and anthropologists have made compelling cases that religion could be a product of adaptive evolution, serving as a “cultural glue” that ensures the survival of a group with shared beliefs. They contend that religion exists to reinforce collective behaviors beneficial to the group and underpin certain cultural norms, including those related to gender roles. Evolutionary biology also recognizes various sex-specific roles observed in mammals, including humans. These roles, shaped by thousands of generations of natural selection, are biologically hard-wired in our brains.
However, Walsh does not seem to appreciate that these traits and tendencies represent statistical probabilities rather than ironclad truths, and that some of them might no longer hold adaptive significance or relevance in our modern world. It’s true that human personalities, varying widely amongst individuals, tend to cluster according to sex. When researchers looked at 21,567 subjects and categorized them across 15 dimensions of personality (warmth, emotional stability, assertiveness, gregariousness, dutifulness, friendliness, sensitivity, distrust, imagination, reserve, anxiety, complexity, introversion, orderliness, and emotionality), they found that while there was significant overlap (about 30 percent) between sexes on individual dimensions, the overall overlap was just about 7 percent. This indicates that the personality profile of a randomly selected male is typically more masculine than that of a randomly selected female 93 percent of the time.
In light of these facts, Walsh’s position appears to hold up in general. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that most does not mean all. A small proportion of individuals, approximately 7 percent according to the study, can justifiably consider themselves “gender nonconforming,” recognizing that they diverge considerably from typical members of their sex. While Walsh critiques Joyce for dismissing gender norms, he may be conflating two distinct arguments: Is Joyce denying that males and females possess different cognitive wiring, on average, or is she arguing against converting these average differences into strict social expectations? While the former stance contradicts common sense, the latter is a defensible opinion against stereotyping. Given Joyce’s full opinion quoted above, it appears Walsh is rebutting a straw-man argument.
Furthermore, when Walsh discusses the purpose of sex roles and common characteristics, his tone and language do not seem to admit the possibility that not all men may share his view of manhood. His interpretation of ideal masculinity may be outdated in our modern society, largely due to the diminished economic value of physical strength in our knowledge-driven economy. Some of these gender-nonconforming men might just be gay, and Walsh’s view does not appear to accommodate this possibility.
On the contrary, Joyce clearly and frequently underscores the potential danger gender ideology poses to pre-LGB youth, a matter she deems profoundly concerning. She accurately separates the LGB from the TQ, whereas Walsh tends to lump these groups together, suggesting an inherent societal problem with being gay. That said, Walsh has previously raised valid concerns about the vilification of males by some feminists through terms like “toxic masculinity” that essentially criticize men and boys for their male-typical traits, which he argues leave some young men rudderless. Ironically, a desire to avoid such reproach might motivate some sensitive adolescent boys to identify as transgender.
A flawed argument presented by Walsh, in response to Joyce’s podcast interview, claims that the emergence of transgender ideology directly following third-wave feminism serves as evidence that feminism—not longstanding conservative values—caused gender ideology to explode. This argument mirrors the flawed logic often used by activist researchers to assert that gender treatments are lifesaving: there’s no control group, other relevant variables are overlooked, and the conclusion attempts to oversimplify an extraordinarily complex issue. A more reasonable explanation is that both feminism and conservative values played a part, with social media serving as the catalyst that propagated this social contagion far and wide among particularly susceptible teenagers.
That said, Joyce would be mistaken to assert—and she has now clarified in writing that she does not believe—that feminism is entirely blameless. However, feminism is not a monolith: it includes second-wave, third-wave queer-theory-based, and gender-critical feminism. Joyce has a strong record of challenging third-wave feminism. There is a critical distinction between those who champion equal rights and opportunities for women based on an ethical argument versus those who promote women’s rights based on the argument that men and women are materially indistinguishable. Would Walsh perhaps place himself in the former category? Would Joyce concede that the overall arc of feminism, despite that she and I would regard it as a net positive, may have had some deleterious societal impacts?
Building on this, it’s important to understand that these potential negative impacts don’t necessarily imply that feminism as a principle is bad. Rather, it suggests that feminism may have unfolded in a manner that contributed to the erosion of the family unit and traditional family values, which in turn caused certain harms. This could partly be attributed to men, as a group, not adapting well to the shift in power dynamics and role changes that occurred over a few generations—an evolutionary blink of the eye. Or perhaps too many adults of each sex acted selfishly, neglecting the time- and energy-consuming task of raising children with secure attachment.
In this context, Walsh’s observations warrant consideration. Walsh frequently—and I believe rightly—calls out immaturity and selfishness as factors that interfere with good parenting. It is undeniable that modern children and teens are experiencing unprecedented levels of mental health struggles, likely due to inadequate parenting and attachment issues but also encompasses many other factors. Poor mental health is undoubtedly a key reason adolescents are vulnerable to the gender identity narrative. Therefore, Walsh’s argument holds some merit. However, it’s not as simple or straightforward as he makes it out to be, and singling out gender-critical feminism as the sole cause of gender ideology misses the mark.
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