We philosophers are used to asking difficult questions. How do I know other people exist? Is the universe real? Do I have free will?
But in the strange times we live in, one question — at least to some people — seems to be even more perplexing.
What is a woman?
As a philosophy professor of 28 years’ standing, I was delighted when Oxford University Press (OUP), arguably the world’s most prestigious academic publishing house, enthusiastically accepted my proposal in 2020 for a book on the philosophy of sex and gender: Trouble With Gender — Sex Facts, Gender Fictions.
I wanted to probe some of the great quandaries of our time: ‘What is gender?’, ‘What is a woman?’, ‘Is sex binary?’, ‘What is gender identity?’, ‘Why do some people transition from man to woman, or vice versa?’ But if I thought that this prestigious publisher was brave enough to pursue difficult subjects in the spirit of free intellectual inquiry, I was mistaken.
In the end, OUP simply couldn’t countenance my inescapable but heretical conclusion in the book — that women are adult human females.
I had made it abundantly clear that the book would not take a stand on political and social issues — trans women in female sports, for example. It was instead supposed to be a lively and accessible tour of central questions about sex and gender, demonstrating that the tools of philosophy can bring light instead of heat.
As I started to write, an OUP editor told me that my book would be ‘an important one’. I was drawing on anthropology, sociology, psychology, sexology and biology, as well as philosophy. But one connecting thread ran through every chapter: the fact that humans, like many animals, come in significantly different male and female forms.
This is crucial to dispelling the modern swirl of confusion around gender.
Perhaps naively, I thought that all this could prove an important subject for lively philosophical study. Most book-buyers are inquisitive people who want to be provoked and challenged, and are willing to change their views if the evidence is strong.
Yet when I delivered the text exactly as promised, OUP changed its tune entirely. To my shock and dismay, the publisher rejected my manuscript, alleging that the book did not treat the subject ‘in a sufficiently serious and respectful way’.
This, as anyone who reads it could tell you, was frankly absurd. I was not even offered the courtesy of making revisions, as an author typically would be.
It appears that my offence was seemingly to be open-minded — a prerequisite for any philosopher — rather than to have written with foregone conclusions.
What has happened when a great publishing institution is too fearful to produce books that explore challenging topics?
The ferocious arguments around trans rights were a niche issue a decade ago. Today, they form one of the great debates of our society.