While Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal was studying at Utrecht University in the 1970s, two male chimpanzees were kept on the top floor of one of the buildings. Each, whenever a woman approached them, sported “a prominent erection”. Yet “they barely looked up” when de Waal and a classmate approached wearing robes and wigs. How did they discern femininity, de Waal wondered – he ruled out their sense of smell, which is no more acute in chimpanzees than in humans.
Even when compiled systematically, however, how much do findings about our primate relatives tell us about ourselves? Evolutionary biologists like de Waal face almost as much hostility in the 21st century as Darwin’s followers did in the 19th. No longer for religious reasons, but because they are accused of giving men an alibi for promiscuity and aggression, thus confirming the patriarchal status quo. Many feminists and other progressives assume that humans are born as blank slates, free to design their own behavior; this hypothesis seems essential to any hope of remedying the inequalities of society.
De Waal, however, thinks it’s “a form of creationism” to believe that “while our bodies are a product of evolution, our minds belong only to us.” Changing society requires recognizing that we are animals – with innate appetites, needs, fragility, tribalism. And – oddly enough – many feminists now seem to agree with him.
As a “gender-critical” feminist, Holly Lawford-Smith not only stresses biology, lamenting the mantra that “trans women are women,” but also that “intersectionality” has been overrated. This notion – that the more a person falls into disadvantaged categories, the more their oppression gradually increases – has caused the agenda of feminism to become “inflated” beyond recognition or practicality, argues- she. Feminism cannot afford to remedy all injustices; she should again fight for “the liberation of women as women, rather than as people more generally”. More serious and less popular than de Waal, with her colorful examples and easy eloquence, she rigorously describes how to put women back at the center of feminism and save it from its current confusion.
There has always been, Lawford-Smith admits, a tension at the heart of feminism. “Liberal feminists” have focused so much on winning male privilege that they have “disproportionately emphasized” the supposedly asexual mind, while “radical feminists” (whom she says “gender critiques” are a continuation) always wanted to highlight and “revalue” the physical and psychological differences between women and men. But how to identify these feminine attributes, as they have been concealed, neglected and flouted?
Human intuitiveness and nurturing emotionality are invoked by some feminists as “natural” and essential for women; other feminists dismiss these qualities as mere gender issues, which de Waal defines as “the learned superimpositions that turn a biological woman into a woman and a biological man into a man.” “Gender reveal parties” are, he says, misnamed since “unborn children have no gender, only one sex.”
Lawford-Smith basically agrees. “Sex is like rocks and trees; gender is like money and universities,” she says. But of course she is well aware that in practice gender, for women, is inexorably linked to their sex as self-denying childbearers, while somehow allowing men to transcend theirs and to be presented as the homo sapiens bearer of reason par excellence. ‘Man’ is the generic, but slips gently towards the specifically male human being (in fact, it surreptitiously means both); “woman” is characterized only in contrast to “man” and is seen as rationally substandard. The same pseudo-archetypes have been applied to non-human animals. Monkeys were seen as militaristic figures, mostly male in fact, with females merely seducing casual sex bait.
But that, says de Waal, was “in the male pinnacle of primatology.” The discovery that humans are as closely related to sexy, pleasure-loving bonobos as we are to aggressive chimpanzees allows us to happily think of ourselves as combining the peaceful and the belligerent. Meanwhile, thanks to female primatologists and “Darwinian feminism,” female primates are now seen as just as fierce in pursuing their own agenda as males, with both sexes being equally adamant about reproduction.
De Waal describes how young female monkeys carry sticks on their backs, like infants, and rock them; when offered toys, they invariably choose dolls, while men choose wheeled vehicles and sometimes tear the dolls apart. Lawford-Smith may not be thrilled by such accounts, might even complain about “gender stereotypes.” Interestingly, de Waal suggests that these male/female differences in monkeys might not be innate but, in a sense, cultural: little female monkeys can mimic the mothering of their mothers, just as they copy the fact that their mothers eat. , rub fruit or fish. techniques, which their brothers do not. “Pretending to mother” is, however, more homogeneous than the other learned behaviors. “If girls’ interest in infants and dolls were purely cultural, it would have to vary from place to place and from time to time,” says de Waal, and “it’s hardly the case”. Instead of being the “artifact of patriarchy” that Lawford-Smith denounces, gender can, he speculates, be a core feature of ape society, as well as human society.
Gender, as Lawford-Smith objects, has come to be seen as “a way we feel about ourselves and over which we alone have authority,” as if it replaced sex; indeed, philosopher Judith Butler and others insist that sex itself is socially constructed. Gender is seen as the innate inner essence of the person which can be at odds with their gendered appearance. But that takes the body to be the puppet of the soul and goes back to the antiquated “mind-body dualism” that virtually all 21st-century thinkers claim to reject.
“We are subject to the same laws of nature as animals,” says De Waal. He warns that non-binarity in medicine restores the atavism of diagnosing and treating women as if they were little men. Ignoring that “many diseases are sex-linked” undermines health care.
Gender has been the enemy of women, but transgender, says Lawford-Smith, offers only “an individual solution to a social problem.” She attributes the oft-cited 4,400% increase in the number of girls referred for transition to the way transactivism has entrenched manufactured stereotypes — that women wear ruffled skirts, cry, giggle, curvaceous but svelte, receptacles liabilities of lust. “Gender non-conforming women are [and should be] normal,” she says.
“Since we like to place ourselves above beasts and near angels, we almost resent our bodies,” de Waal explains. He complains that sexologists “are totally human-centric – as if our species invented sex,” neglecting the erotic pleasure of nonhuman animals, for whom sex is not “purely procreative”; also forgetting its evolutionary goal of mixing the gene package with each new generation.
If there weren’t two sexes, and we were a cloning species, there wouldn’t be any need for feminism – but neither would we have been as evolutionary as we are. Only if you take sex as fundamental, gender as a partly cultural addition, can you rewrite what it is to be a woman. Any honest, self-respecting feminist and/or biologist would fight the new gender fetishism. It looks back at how women were portrayed and what they were – rather than what they can become, vaginas and all.
Gender Feminism by Holly Lawford-Smith is published by Open University Press at £30; Different: what monkeys can teach us about gender is published by Granta at £20. To order your copies for £25 and £16.99 respectively, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.