Hypatia throws critical thought out the window in the name of feminist philosophy

Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” asks critical questions and harms no one. The Hypatia editorial board owes her an apology.

While numerous people — from feminists, to journalists, to academics, to teachers, to writers, to experts in the field of gender identity, and of course, your average social media user — have experienced the silencing and attacks that inevitably follow a failure to toe the party line on the issue of transgenderism with exacting precision, a recent controversy within the field of philosophy has demonstrated this trend with disturbing clarity.

The reaction to an article titled, “In Defense of Transracialism,” published in the Spring 2017 issue of Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy, has shone further light on just how totalitarian trans activism has become.

Considering the mass denunciations of the author, Rebecca Tuvel, accusing her of “transmisogyny,” you might think she takes at least a controversial position on transgenderism. In fact, Tuvel does not argue against the phenomenon, but rather asks why, if we are willing to accept an individual like Caitlyn Jenner’s “gender identity,” we shouldn’t accept someone like Rachel Dolezal’s “racial identity.” Tuvel’s aim was not, in other words, to challenge the existence of trans people or their right to transition, but to question the logic of those who say a white person cannot “feel black” whereas a male can “feel like a woman.”

“Generally, we treat people wrongly when we block them from assuming the personal identity they wish to assume,” she writes. Tuvel goes on to explain that, while in the past, the identities of trans individuals were often not respected by those around them, “Thankfully, [today] there is growing recognition that justice for trans individuals means respecting their self-identification by granting them membership in their felt sex category of belonging.”

Tuvel goes out of her way to say that society should accept both transgender people and the phenomenon of transgenderism regardless of whether or not we are able to prove a “biological or social basis of sex-gender identity.” She also questions the notion that there is such a thing as a shared experience of womanhood, connected to biology. It is strange, therefore, that her paper has been presented as somehow opposed to or harmful to trans people.

The dominant claim of trans activists is that they are seeking rights, respect, and safety for those who identify as transgender. What is clear to many of us who have questioned the validity and impact of the idea that a person born male is literally a woman, simply because they say so, is that this is not simply about rights and respect. The reaction to Tuvel’s article shows that, indeed, trans activism is primarily invested in controlling discourse. That a scholar would poke holes in the logic of those who vehemently oppose the concept of “transracialism” but who unequivocally support the concept of “transgenderism” is unacceptable because it challenges those who do this to ask questions and think critically — something not permitted within the church of gender identity. In order to “support trans rights,” avoid being labelled a “TERF” (i.e. a hateful bigot), and to generally be accepted as a progressive, “inclusive” person, you must repeat approved mantras, ask no questions, and denounce those who challenge popular discourse by asking uncomfortable questions. What the attack on Tuvel shows is that it is not stated opposition to trans rights that demands repudiation, but rather the application of critical thought to the idea of “gender identity.”

Not long after Tuvel’s paper was published in Hypatia, an open letter was circulated, demanding the article be retracted. The letter claimed Tuvel’s article caused “harm” and was only published due to unchecked “white and cisgender privilege.” Crimes listed include the use of the term “transgenderism,” which the authors of the letter claim is a word that is “not recognized, accepted, or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields” (there is no evidence to show this is true), and the “deadnaming” of a transwoman. These claims were repeated by many of Tuvel’s colleagues on social media. In a Facebook post, Nora Berenstain, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, said that Tuvel enacted “violence” by “deadnaming,” using the term “transgenderism,” discussing “biological sex,” and acknowledging “that trans women have (at some point had) male privilege.”

The reason trans activists oppose the use of the word “transgenderism” is, apparently, because it implies an idea rather than a fact. In other words, it allows the notion of gender identity to be discussed rather than accepted blindly as inarguably legitimate. Writer and trans activist Julia Serano, for example, explains that the term was a neutral one until feminists “misappropriated it in a way that confuses the state of being transgender with a potentially dangerous political ideology.” Of course, the truth is that gender itself is merely an idea (an idea applied with force, in a harmful way, of course, but still an idea, rather than an inherent fact), without which transgenderism would not exist. Without gender stereotypes (i.e. masculinity and femininity), there would be no point in claiming the identity of the “opposite gender” because it would be meaningless. The idea that one can even have an internal gender identity is unprovable and highly contested. So, as much as trans activists would prefer to pretend as though there are no questions surrounding the legitimacy of gender identity, to the extent that they demand the language used to discuss these ideas be banned, it is not true. Feminists have been challenging the idea of innate gender since the inception of the women’s liberation movement — indeed, we understand it to be at the root of patriarchy.

The accusation of “deadnaming” is, similarly, an overt attempt to control discourse. In the case of Tuvel’s article, she acknowledged that Caitlyn Jenner was once Bruce Jenner (for 65 years, in fact) — a crime of epic proportions, only because it acknowledges that transwomen are in fact male and lived with male privilege. That acknowledging this reality (that trans people indeed transition from one thing to another, and therefore were not always the thing they claim to be now) is said to be unacceptable speaks to the way in which trans activists are working to deny reality and limit discourse. Understanding that Jenner lived as a wealthy white male harms no one. It is a fact. To deny this reality, on the other hand, is harmful, as it forces us to deny the existence of systemic, class-based privilege. It asks us to deny that oppression under patriarchy is based on sex and that Jenner benefited from male privilege regardless of his internal feelings.

The remainder of the attacks on Tuvel, listed in the open letter, are similarly empty or unsubstantiable. Mylan Engel, a philosophy professor at the University of Northern Illinois, points out, for example, that “in fact [the article] was meticulously researched” and that Tuvel “cites a combined 27 books and articles in the course of presenting and defending her view.” Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, demonstrates that the claim that Tuvel misrepresented and mischaracterized various theories and accounts is also false.

Beyond all that, there is the fact that the paper was accepted by the editorial board after having undergone their standard reviewing procedure and made it through double-anonymous review with at least two referees. This means that Tuvel’s paper was, in fact, up to snuff, as per the standards of the journal and the field.

The open letter itself, while defamatory and irrational, would not necessarily have resulted in the (actual) harm that it has, had Hypatia’s editorial board not caved to pressure. But on Monday, a post on the journal’s Facebook page issued a “profound apology… for the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused.” The board expressed regret for having published the article and agreed with the numerous accusations listed in the letter, including the charge of “deadnaming,” adding:

“Perhaps most fundamentally, to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a distinctly external perspective) primarily to a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity creates an equivalency that fails to recognize the history of racial appropriation, while also associating trans people with racial appropriation.”

Though Tuvel differentiates between sex and race, she does point out that, while many claim  that men who identify as women lose their male privilege by doing so and deny that a shared experience of growing up female in a patriarchy has anything to do with womanhood, they don’t apply the same logic to someone like Dolezal:

“Granting for the sake of argument that the experience of racism is what binds all black people together, it remains unclear why one’s past experience with racism is required for one’s current status as black. Racialized as black in her current life, Dolezal is presumably treated similarly to any light-skinned black woman. Dolezal herself suggests as much when she describes the humiliating experience of having her hair searched by the TSA and of being subject to police harassment as a black woman (Nashrulla, Griffin, and Dalrymple 2015). So why say she can claim to be black only if she was racialized as black her entire life? If she has been subject to racism for over ten years (McGreal 2015), is this not sufficient to expose her to an important element of what it’s like to be black in a racist society? Moreover, if true, this objection would also apply to trans women who transitioned later in life but did not grow up knowing what it was like to experience sexism. Yet despite not having grown up with this experience, we do not rightly suggest that a trans person cannot, for this reason, now identify as a woman.”

In other words, the philosophy scholars who denounced her article and publicly accused her of causing “harm” refused to engage with the questions asked by Tuvel (a thing that, of all people, philosophy scholars should do, with rigour), choosing instead to throw a young, untenured, assistant professor to the wolves, potentially destroying her entire career, in order to placate a mass of dishonest, unthinking bullies. Tuvel herself has been subjected to death threats and hate mail as a result of the letter and statement from Hypatia, which the board did not speak out against, but instead called “predictable and justifiable.” This decision has not only seriously harmed a woman who dared only to think, but will undoubtedly silence countless more women who are insecure in academia. For a journal of feminist philosophy to silence critical thinking in this way is not only shocking, but incredibly dangerous.

Chloe Taylor, a professor of philosophy at the University of Alberta, explains the harm caused effectively, at Daily Nous:

“This is not an environment that is conducive to political change and learning — all that is being taught is to be afraid and silent, to not work on difficult or controversial topics because we could be subjected to this kind of attack. Already I am wondering if I should not write or teach on certain topics that make me vulnerable to attack, and I know of other feminist philosophers who are now thinking the same thing. This is fostering an academic culture of fear and censorship rather than thinking and engagement. We need to discuss these important issues carefully, but we need to do it in a way that does not do so at the expense of a junior social justice scholar working in a male dominated discipline, who may have made some mistakes, but mistakes that many of us could have made or have made without being subjected to the same aggression.”

The ethical concerns brought up by Hypatia’s response are numerous, including defamation, promoting anti-intellectualism, and effectively endorsing misogynist silencing and attacks on dissenting feminist voices. It is also worth noting that Cressida Heyes, a philosophy professor at the University of Alberta, who is the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality, and is the member of Hypatia’s editorial board who wrote the apology (and publicly denounced the article on her personal Facebook page), is referenced by Tuvel, who criticizes Heyes’ work on transracialism and transgenderism in her article.

Feminist philosophy exists to discuss feminist ideas and to apply a feminist framework to philosophical texts and questions. That those ideas and this analysis may be controversial is a given. If Hypatia’s editorial board is not equipped to navigate controversy in a fair, honest, and ethical way, they should step down, as this means they are not able or willing to fulfill their duties as board members. If anyone deserves an apology in this mess, it’s Tuvel herself, as well as women everywhere who have been silenced yet again, this time in the name of feminism.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

Like this article? Tip Feminist Current!

Personal Info

Donation Total: $1

  • soyouretheone

    It’s beyond depressing. Usually I am endlessly optimistic but I have a hard time seeing a silver lining in this culture that cannot discuss dissenting views without bullying, threats, and anger. Sounds male dominated, doesn’t it. Anyway, a well written article as usual!

  • ladywholikesbrainymen

    This whole debacle is a sickening retread of self-criticism and reeducation a la China’s Cultural Revolution, with a side of newspeak from 1984.

  • martindufresne

    I find this summary most informative and convincing. Thank you Meghan!

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks Martin!

  • BenEsler

    “It is also worth noting that Cressida Heyes, a philosophy professor at the University of Alberta, who is the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality, and is the member of Hypatia’s editorial board who wrote the apology (and publicly denounced the article on her personal Facebook page), is referenced by Tuvel, who criticizes Heyes’ work on transracialism and transgenderism in her article.”

    Holy crap. This is more than worth noting. That is extraordinary.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Pretty sketchy, in my opinion.

      • Jade

        I’ve read two other articles on this before reading yours, and neither of them mention this clear bias on Heyes’ part. So yes, good catch.

  • Tired feminist

    If there’s any silver lining to this madness… every time the trans mob goes after a woman who was trying to play nice with them, I hope that the experience will help her realize there’s no compromise possible with them.

    That said, I’m scared of going back to the academia, I’ll admit it.

  • TheArtistFormerlyKnownAsYoya

    It’s as if we’re re-entering a dark age.

    Trans activists are afraid that transracialism will delegitimize the transgender movement, but I see it going the other direction. Transgenderism is being used to legitimize transracialism. I’ve been noticing rumblings here and there, people opening up to transracialism. I saw an interview with Dolezal on CNN where the interviewer (can’t recall who it was) came away seeming to accept transracialism. Strange times we are living in.

  • Novo

    One pro-trans liberal feminist did kind of defend her free speech. Its interesting to read, this writer is sort of a contrarian pro-trans extreme sex-positive figure though so I take her words with (more than) a grain of salt. She was one of the only people who defended Milo after he was fired from Breitbart basically because she’s pro-free speech.
    Specifically she calls out people who are trying to make Rebecca Tuvel into ‘a Voldemort figure’.

    “Trans issues have become to academics and progressives and lefties what racial issues have historically been and continue to be for guilty white lefties and liberals. They provide cover for a lot of public chest-thumping, and hide the reality that most people are either clueless or even really problematic about trans issues when it matters, in real life interactions and behind closed doors.”

    Keep in mind she is extremely pro-trans but this sentence can be read multiple ways…YES, I think most progressives are extremely clueless about trans issues…as in they think TW are this ultra-oppressed group and they have no idea this is all a homophobic, misogynistic sham that hurts actual women.

    • Novo

      It looks like Glenn Greenwald subtweeted in support too? This seems good..Maybe actual adults are getting tired of giving special treatment for trans issues.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Oh yeah?

  • Meghan Murphy
  • Meghan Murphy

    Oh good lord.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Thanks will xx

  • Meghan Murphy

    Hmm I doubt the facebook page has a ‘board’ of its own… The post was signed “a majority of Hypatia’s Board of Associated Editors.” And no, they are definitely not interns. They are academics. You can see the editorial board here: http://hypatiaphilosophy.org/HRO/content/hypatia-editorial-board

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t full agreement from the board, hence the “a majority of.” It sounds as if one person (Heyes) wrote the statement, then the board took a vote as to whether they agreed and should post. I am just guessing, but that would make sense, in terms of process.

  • Lucia Lola

    The more I read about this travesty, the angrier I get. The blatant dishonesty on the part of her critics, the all out willful ignorance in the face of valued virtue signaling is enough to make a person lose their minds.

    Incredibly shameful and again, incredibly cowardly. Again, fantastic breakdown, Meghan. Information and education is always the sword needed in times like this. You are a true warrior.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Solidarity, sister.

  • Benjamin S

    Is it now the philosophy world’s consensus that the only allowable opinion is that trans women are, in fact, women? And, not only that, but that they never were men? This is an absurd state of affairs, as I’m sure there are many philosophers who would argue the contrary on both counts.

    • Tired feminist

      I have to say, I’m baffled that gender identity theory has been given any kind of philosophical credibility to begin with, even being so nonsensical and self-contradictory.

      • will

        I hear what you are saying, but your assumption is premised on the notion that philosophy does not largely consist of the convoluted intellectual gordian knots invented by men in order to determine “universal” laws that justify their own power over others. I had a brief foray into philosophy and found it just as incoherent as the average comment thread on the interwebs – just with longer words and more run-on sentences. 🙂

        • Tired feminist

          Haha, yeah I noticed. But still, philosophers were supposed to apply more rigorous logic standards than the average internet commenter…

          • will

            I just read the comments thread under the article that Kelly Oliver wrote (linked in her comment above, but here it is again).


            There are a number of men who chime in to explain how a preponderance of women have undermined the intellectual discipline of philosophy with their innate feminine inability to think properly.

            I really find that, despite the fact that western philosophy purports to apply rational thought to interpret material evidence, it is a discipline that lacks that methodology more than most. Sigh.

  • Allison Redford

    I find the violence against the transracial community and transracist arguments by Nora Berenstain and her ilk to be utterly deplorable. They make high claims of radical inclusion and then commit violence and transracist acts without a thought. Shame on them.

  • Given that the most condemning voices were women’s voices, I’m going to toss out some ideas about the “wounded male syndrome”, which I have seen in academia as well as everywhere else. There are women, lots of them, who will trample over hundreds of women in their rush to coddle and protect one male whom they perceive as wounded. In the classroom, these are “teacher’s pets”, the little boys who are “sensitive” or lack confidence or who in other ways show they aren’t like other men. Have you seen grown women rush to cover these boys with their protective wings, and start brooding over them like some kind of ducky mother hen?? I personally find it a sickening thing to see. But I think no one will dispute that women will not shriek their rage about some injustice committed to another woman. Sure, women will protest and form committees and try to rally support for abused or wounded women, but we don’t see the shrieking in rage like we see in the case of women supporting male to trans people. That tells me these women need “wounded males” to validate their own existence, and they see trans”women” as males, wounded ones and they’re using these “wounded males” to prop up their own egos. Anyone have thoughts on this?

    • Sabine

      I totally see what you’re saying. Women indoctrinated into Patriarchy will also fight to keep the hierarchy in place without questioning their “instincts”. I have been an absolute classic “wounded male” rescuer in my life and remained so until I woke up to the reality I am actually living in. In my twenties I am sure I would have been one of those shrieking women, enraged on behalf of the MtT being “violated” by other women! Women have been very, very well trained…..

      • Wren

        I’ve been entrapped by the “wounded male” ruse many times in my life, but now I look for it immediately. It’s amazing because sooooo many men pull this stunt, even as far as casting out a stupid sob story about how hard their life is on the first date, and they are visually disappointed when I don’t take the bait. It’s pathetic.

    • Atheist

      I have female family members who are not only misogynists but have devoted their entire lives to wounded males they aren’t related to at the exclusion of their own female relatives. For a long time I rationalized it as an evolutionary fluke dating back to pre-history days when the population of males were much less than they are today (due to infant mortality, male risk taking and impulsivity, ect) but who am I kidding? We aren’t living in pre-history days, and we haven’t in a very long time. We also live in a society where males get better care at every turn in every institution imaginable, within the public school system, in the health care system, in the legal system, ect. There is no excuse for this.

      I don’t know if it’s an ego thing, but I have felt that these women get some bizarre kick out of it. I think what we’re dealing here is plain old misogyny, even if it is internalized misogyny. Misogynists literally get off on harming women. It makes them high not unlike a drug addiction. Treating women like irrelevant subhumans makes them feel good. It’s almost like externalized masochism.

    • Rich Garcia

      @ripsintolabels:disqus In some circles we call this the “Queen Bee”. Women who try to assert a false sense of status onto themselves by playing mommy and hive queen to emotionally co-dependent men or boys, because it gives them a sense of validation. Especially when they look at other females as competition for male attention.

      I’ll be the first to admit that I was a Teacher’s Pet. But because I was raised by a strict aunt who valued privacy and discretion, she didn’t want me getting too close to other women of seniority who she knew would have a significant impact on me and take pity on me, like teachers for example.

    • will

      I totally get what you are saying and it’s a real problem. I was raised to this shit and despite the fact that I have rejected marriage and child-bearing, I still find the old patterns emerge even before I am conscious of it. All of the men in my family were wounded birds of one sort or another and the women hyper-capable, caring and compensating. I’m still unravelling these behaviours and consciously re-channeling my energies into supporting and helping other women. It’s like we need the old consciousness-raising groups to talk this stuff out, but I guess that’s what we’re doing here. 🙂

  • Hekate Jayne

    Transwomen go on and on about words being literal “violence”. “Deadnaming”, mentioning their lifetime of male privilege, calling them “he/him”, etc., all violence, according to transwomen.

    Now, compare that to the actual male violence that women face. Domestic violence is “private” or a “family matter”. When women are murdered at the hands of males, we aren’t supposed to judge because the male murderer is a “good guy” that loved his wife, and everyone is just so shocked. Rape is never violence, either, it’s a “misunderstanding”, or the woman is regretting consensual sex.

    So now, not only do women never really experience violence from males, but also, dudes in dresses are experiencing violence from women because meanie words.

  • Wren

    In general, I think the problem women need to overcome is that we aren’t mean enough about anything, except when we are being mean to other women, as in the case of Hypatia. The socialization to be empathetic to men and their needs is just so hard to overcome. We are not supposed to have any physical or intellectual boundaries that are actually meaningful, so why would academia be any different?

  • Topazthecat

    It really isn’t surprising at all that the sexes brains are more alike than different,( although given the fact that there is a lot of evidence from neuroscience that human brains are plastic and easily molded and shaped by different life experiences and different conditioning,and environments, and the fact that the sexes are born biologically more alike than different with very few differences but are still perceived and treated very differently systematically in every way by parents and other adult care givers, from the moment it’s learned they are a girl or a boy, before they are born it’s amazing that our brains are still more alike than different,and that we are psychologically more alike than different to despite all of this!) the clitoris and penis are very similar because they come from the same exact tissue, so does the male scrotum, the female vulva and even the ovaries and testicles.

    And men even have the same breast tissue that is responsive to estrogen and they can even develop full breasts ready for a bra right away if for some reason their testosterone level goes down,the small amount of estrogen (they also have progesterone which is necessary for healthy bone development in both sexes and does a whole lot of other positive health things in women and men, http://www.livestrong.com/article/290192-is-progesterone-produced-by-men/ ) that is normally in their bodies,causes this it’s a condition called gynecomastia.

    But of course none of all of these similarities are even recognized much less emphasized because we still all live in a very sexist,artificially gender divided,gender stereotyped,male dominated society that is totally obsessed and oriented to making the sexes into opposite artificial ”feminine” and ”masculine” categories.

  • Topazthecat

    Bruce Jenner just seems like a regular guy here in this 1984 TV interview with ,no indication that he would ”become” a woman! Other people said this too in the comments besides me.


    It’s likely that Bruce was really always a closeted gay man and because he’s been a conservative republican,he wouldn’t have it as bad ”becoming” a heterosexual woman,as he would have being a gay man.

  • Rich Garcia

    These poor, oh-so-oppressed transmales not only have male privilege, but they indulge in their racism too.


    I wonder the white supremacist liberal excuse is for a white tranny calling a black woman an ape, even as black/WOC Third Wave feminists have been groomed to direct their aggression towards white women (especially white feminists), and are very much in line with accepting the lie that men who pretend that they are women are the most oppressed group of people on this planet.

  • Wren

    So he’s part of a criminal family who still owes the FDIC and depositors millions?



    They got interest free financing of stolen money and taxpayers dollars that they never paid back, but I will never be able to afford to pay the interest on my student loans?? This family helped precipitate the collapse of our economy and the 700 billion in bailouts, but then Obama undermines title IX and sells out his daughters for this them?? I HATE EVERYONE.

  • Kathleen Lowrey

    Totally totally totally this whole comment thread. I think academics were sort of lulled into thinking .. oh, scientists can be bought off by oil companies and drug companies but over in the humanities and social sciences we are all armed with “critical theory” so we’ll never fall for any of that. Enter Pritzker endowing chairs and hey presto just like in the sciences you’ve got the knowledge outcomes that are bought and paid for!

  • Atheist

    Putting aside the trans argument for a moment: there is no point in feminism if women won’t be allowed to think for themselves and share how/why they have formed the opinion they’ve formed. Feminism itself was founded by women who had the audacity to form their own opinion and speak on their own behalf and to punish a woman for that is beyond despicable.

    Whether one agrees with Ms. Tuvel is irrelevant – she’s not like Milo Y, and she is not a provocateur who gets off on emotionally abusing other people. She isn’t inflammatory and doesn’t make shock jock statements to give unearned legitimacy to her position like Ann Coulter. Ms. Tuval has simply shared an opinion and her reasons for holding that opinion and her thought processes that led her to a particular conclusion. A conclusion, might I add, that had nothing to do with arguing the validity of transpolitics. Whether or not anyone agrees with her is beside the point. If someone doesn’t think women have a basic human right to make up her own mind and/or challenge what other people think she ought to believe, then they aren’t a feminist. They’re a misogynist. The fact that this harassment campaign passes as feminist is frankly appalling.

    There is also something to be said about the Internet itself – that women already have to put up with disproportionate amounts of misogyny every fucking day without being harassed for speaking an unpopular opinion. Both the Right and the Left go ON and ON and ON and ON about freedom of speech and yet women still are not allowed to exercise it no matter how responsible they are with their words. What’s happening here would be an absolute outrage if it were happening to a male, but somehow it’s not because it’s happening to a woman who is also a feminist. It makes me want to puke my guts out (again).

  • Kelly

    My response to the social media outcry and some of the editorial board of Hypatia writing an “apology”

  • LonesomeRhoades

    Gender/sex are determined at birth. Born a man, die a man. Born a woman, die a woman. The whole “transgender” concept is a lie.