J.K. Rowling's lonely fight for women's rights

Originally Published in The Washington Examiner
25 June 2020

A century ago, on Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified and women were guaranteed the right to vote. While we have achieved much else besides since then, not least in terms of our educational and economic and political opportunities, the fight for gender equality still has a long way to go.

Supporters of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution — passed by Congress in 1972 — haven’t given up on getting it ratified by enough states. The United Nations has an entire campaign for global gender equality. Actresses and other celebrities have come out by the hundreds in support of the #MeToo and the #TIMESUP movement. Taylor Swift released a song last year lamenting that life is easier for men. And last October, Melinda Gates committed $1 billion to expand “women’s power and influence” in the United States. Along with Mackenzie Bezos, she has put up an additional $30 million for a gender equity contest.

There is, in short, no lack of interest in America and around the world in women’s rights and women’s empowerment. And yet none of this appears to count for very much when a female author dares to stand up to an increasingly militant, not to mention intolerant, transgender movement.

J.K. Rowling is a best-selling writer of genius, a mother, a domestic abuse survivor, and a political liberal — a heroine of our time, whose Harry Potter books have introduced millions of children (including my own) to the joys of reading. In a tweet on June 6, she questioned the use of the phrase “people who menstruate” instead of the more usual “women” in a Devex article.

The backlash was immediate and, as usual on social media, intemperate. The advocacy group GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) accused her of being “cruel” and “targeting trans people.”

Yet Rowling stuck to her principles, responding with another tweet that stated: “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”

And the response to her fortitude? The “woke” Left is seeking to “cancel” her — Newspeak for trashing her reputation — for this ideological heresy.

Even the actors made famous by Rowling’s much-acclaimed book series have come out against her. Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry Potter in the movies, insisted that “transgender women are women” and banned any further conversation or debate on the topic. Eddie Redmayne, who starred in the movie adaptation of Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts series, also vehemently disagreed with her tweets. And Emma Watson, who has been a staunch advocate for the #TIMESUP movement, refused even to consider Rowling’s opinions and instead responded by stating: “Trans people are who they say they are and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned or told they aren’t who they say they are.”

The Blair Partnership, Rowling’s literary agency, saw four of its other authors resign after the agency failed to make a statement “to reaffirm their stance to transgender rights and equality.” After Rowling’s publisher, Hachette, held a meeting over the incident, over 100 staff members signed a letter condemning her. Whence all this outrage? The tension has been building slowly since last December, when Rowling defended Maya Forstater, a visiting fellow at the Centre for Global Development, after Forstater lost her job due to a tweet that was viewed as transphobic. Rowling’s most recent tweets have caused the fury to boil over.

Let me be clear: by tweeting her thoughts and ideas, J.K. Rowling is not “targeting” or in any way harming anyone. She is simply fighting against the erosion of women’s rights. She is warning of the real-life consequences when women’s rights are subordinated to transgender rights. She is urging all of us to think carefully about what is being done on the basis of a warped ideology of “intersectionality,” which conjures up a strange, inverted hierarchy of victimhood and grievance.

When transgender women and women are indistinguishable, women are unable to access the rights they would have if they were distinctive. Thus far, we’ve seen women lose to transgender women in sports across the board, such as in weightlifting or track racing. In women’s prisons — tense environments to begin with — there have been reports of transgender women sexually assaulting other inmates in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.

Transgender inmates, it is true, face their own unique risks in the prison system, reporting significantly higher rates of assault. They face discrimination more generally. Yet being tolerant of transgender women does not mean that one loses the ability to defend the rights of women who were born female. As Rowling says, “when you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman … then you open to door to any and all men who wish to come inside.” These are legitimate concerns about complex, fraught subjects.

In this controversy, I find the silence of women’s rights advocates troubling. Over the past few years, they have demonstrated in Handmaid’s Tale outfits, donned Pussyhats to join Women’s Marches, and expressed online support for the various hashtag movements. But where are our well-known women’s rights activists now? Why have we not heard from Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Atwood, Angelina Jolie, or Meryl Streep? Does not one of them have the guts to defend the most successful female author of our time?

The main reason for this silence, as I see it, is the twisted logic of identity politics and its adherents. This ideology promotes a worldview that is wholly based on power structures and relationships. All of society is viewed through the prism of oppressors and oppressed. The ideology focuses on traits, such as race, gender or sexual orientation, some of which are deemed unalterable, others a matter of personal choice. Yet individual agency is generally devalued, to the benefit of collective identities that are increasingly ideologically fixed. An individual has less and less room to carve out room for her own views within each collective. A matrix has formed where those who have a higher number of marginalized traits rank higher on the victimhood ladder; their “truth” therefore counts more.

Unfortunately, those who are alarmed by the rigid dogmas of identity politics are increasingly quiet, perhaps fearful the “woke” mob will come after them next. The aim of mobs committed to “woke” social justice increasingly appears to be to pressurize dissenters into conformity or, if that fails, into an uneasy silence.

In woke ideology, anything that challenges the power matrix is considered to be not a difference in perspective, but violence. Freedom of speech appears to be protected only when it supports the “correct” viewpoint. Three of the authors who recently quit The Blair Partnership wrote in a statement that: “Freedom of speech can only be upheld if the structural inequalities that hinder equal opportunities for underrepresented groups are challenged and changed.” The Rowling incident highlights the present danger facing not only women’s rights, but also our core values. In my view, there is nothing more suspect than the formulation “Freedom of speech … but only for approved speech.”

What, then, should we do?

To answer this, we have to understand where this destructive ideology came from and why it is that so many young people have come to adopt it.

For too long, we have left the institutions of education — in particular, teacher-training colleges — in the hands of an unrepresentative political fringe. As a result, growing number of teachers today are not teaching our children real critical thinking. Rather, those who view themselves as agents of “social justice” in university lecture halls and classrooms value orthodoxy, conformity and moral condemnation more than they do free thought and free speech. This is particularly true when it comes to the foundations of intersectionality, gender studies and critical race studies.

The phenomenon is not new. As far back as 1994, Daphne Patai and Noretta Koerge — both staunchly committed to women’s rights — warned against increasing pressures in women’s studies departments across the United States to conform to certain fixed ideological viewpoints. But academic trends toward “progressive” conformity and orthodoxy have only intensified in recent years. Those who challenge the woke culture — within or outside of academia — can find themselves fired, doxed, de-platformed or canceled (not forgetting “erased,” another favorite term of our time).

This does not apply just to the educators themselves. According to a survey by the Knight Foundation, more than two-thirds (68%) of American college students say their campus climate precludes students from expressing their true opinions because their classmates might find them offensive. Gradually, universities have come to view themselves less as institutions of vigorous intellectual debate and discussion, and more as zones of psychological “safety,” where the main goal is to prevent students’ emotional discomfort.

The media and the entertainment industry are at fault as well. Influenced by their younger employees, who have successfully imported campus norms to corporate America, newspaper and television executives cower in the face of the “Great Awokening.”

We must rethink what all this means for us and for future generations, and we must push back against it while there is still a chance to do so. We need to challenge the identity-politics narrative by focusing on individual freedom, personal agency, and critical thinking. These concepts are not inimical to human tolerance or to the emancipation of vulnerable individuals. On the contrary, they are the indispensable foundations of a tolerant society.

I therefore praise J.K. Rowling for — so far — standing her ground against a torrent of deeply personal criticism. She is a hero of our times simply for engaging in an act of heterodox thinking and refusing to be intimidated by the Twitter mob. She is not transphobic and neither am I. This fight to preserve the free exchange of ideas is worth having, not only to protect the hard-won rights of women but also to uphold the first principles of a free society.