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  • Kathleen Lowrey

Women Around the World: Awake, Furious, and Affiliating

By Kathleen Lowrey

Feminists with no patience for gender ideology are regularly charged with being “no better than fash” in the argot of today’s hipsters. The historically illiterate brigades of (mostly but not exclusively) Anglophone youth who conflate trans activism with anti-fascism might not be able to spell “homage” or “Catalonia”, but they are sure whatever it is, exactly, that history consists of, they’re definitely living their twenty-first century lives on the right side of it.

Well, in the Big Book of Rules, after “never get involved in a land war in Asia” put “never get in a fight with Spanish feminists about fascism.” Coeducation Kidnapped: A Feminist Critique of the Penetration of Education by Transgenderist Ideas (2022), written by four Spanish feminists, is reminiscent of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) both in its eye for affecting personal detail and the intellectually scathing way it picks through a politically confused and duplicitous historical landscape. Silvia Carrasco, Ana Hidalgo, Araceli Munoz and Marina Pibernat are all educators at the university or secondary level in Spain. They are also all members of DoFemCo (Spanish abbreviation for Feminist Teachers for Coeducation). Coeducation has a particular historical meaning in the Spanish context.

Republican Spain fell to Franco’s fascist forces in April 1939. On May 1, Franco prohibited mixed-sex classrooms in Spain. The curricula offered thereafter to boys and to girls were very different. When this changed in the mid-1970s following Franco’s death, it was in the form of allowing girls to enter what had been schools for boys and to learn what had been the curriculum for boys.

Feminists insisted that what was needed was not this “mixed education” but instead, true “co-education.” Co-education as they conceived it involved specific elements: sex role stereotypes should be subjected to active criticism, and boys and girls alike should be taught values and activities traditionally associated with women on an equal footing with those traditionally associated with men. The movement for coeducation in this sense was inseparable from the women’s liberation movement, and across the 1980s and 1990s it faced considerable resistance in post-fascist Spain.

Or, it used to do. In the twenty-first century, the Spanish educational apparatus has all at once become incredibly boosterish about what it calls “coeducation,” borrowing the term utilized by feminists. This version of “coeducation,” however, is unrecognizable to the feminist women who theorized it, argued for it, and implemented it where possible during the last decades of the twentieth century. They were at first wrong-footed and are now enraged to see Spanish educational policymakers appropriating coeducation as “a vehicle for the penetration of transgenderist ideas into the school system.”

Their quarrel is not with the student body. The authors give a deeply sympathetic and developmentally informed account of why transgenderism appeals to young people: the opportunity for self-fashioning, the invitation to rebel and transgress boundaries, the framing so often proffered to idealistic youth that to be on the “queer” side of today’s history is to be on the side of the vulnerable and the downtrodden, fighting injustice.

The authors are, however, rightly and incandescently angry at the “flagrant abandonment of the responsibility to protect child and youth development and wellbeing, free of stereotypes and sexist prejudice taking place under current legislation at the regional and state level in Spain. They date this dereliction of duty to a series of legal developments in Spain unfolding after 2007. Before this time, “gender” had generally been approached in Spanish law as “a social category that considers women inferior to men, legitimates the multiple forms of violence suffered by women, and which constitutes a grave violation of human rights” -- wording still used as recently as 2011 in the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

In the years since, “gender” steadily has been refashioned as something positive, a form of “diversity” rather than a system of hierarchy designed to oppress women. By 2020, schools in Catalonia were implementing a program called “Coeducate Yourself” centred upon “basic aspects of coeducation, of gender perspectives, and of sexuality.” Here, “gender” is inserted as a natural companion to “coeducation” rather than set apart as being precisely those social and historical stereotypes most corrosive to true coeducational aims.

As the authors document, very nearly identical policies have been rolled out in region after region across Spain, always with the same trans activist organizations consulting captured educational administrations in the elaboration of policy. In every instance, this has taken place in the absence of urgent popular demand, without the full knowledge of the citizenry, without educator input about implications in the school context, with the exclusive consultation of trans activist groups and with no counter-argument from feminist organizations, and has been consented to among political parties without fulsome parliamentary discussion. This pattern is familiar to feminists paying attention from around the world, who will appreciate the perfect encapsulation by the authors of the language in which these policies are advocated for: “ambiguous and orotund.”

The stark problem is that this new policy suite calls itself “coeducation” whilst “omitting to mention discrimination on the basis of sex… its objects and its protagonists.” In a sad historical turn, teacher training documents now recommend surveillance for inconformity to sex-role stereotypes which even the most Francoist of schoolmasters may have hesitated to embark upon, urging educators to “detect students that may present indications that their assigned sex is different from their gender identity” and to communicate this to the director of the educational centre, who will then convene the family to decide how best to proceed. As the authors have it, educators are under these new policies urged to act as the “gender police.”

In short, this new inside-out version of “coeducation” is woefully sexist and irredeemably homophobic. The authors reproduce an image now used in Spanish primary schools to educate young children about gender, which can vary along a spectrum all the way from Barbie to Action Man. They describe an eight year old Basque girl, who after lessons using this image became sure she must be “trans” and who has since been prescribed puberty blockers. Children of a similar age are shown the Argentine short film “Alone with Tiziana” about an eight year old boy who likes dancing, and wearing a skirt and a big pink bow in his hair, and who used to be sad until he got a new state identity card that labels him as a girl. This in the words of the filmmakers is “who he really is,” which in the words of the authors “just happens to coincide with Western aesthetic stereotypes of femininity represented in all media.”

Criticism of these new practices is harshly punished, as is making any rude mention of the fact that the opposition to their implementation is composed “of women in its majority,” or bringing up the existence of growing numbers of desisters, among them many young women who have found feminism far more therapeutic than trans identity ever was for ameliorating their distress over their bodies and their “lived experiences.” If women are nothing but a feeling anyone can have, how is real coeducation possible? How can sex role stereotypes be combated if “the government itself is protecting and preserving these roles, elevating them to the category of identities?” In the context of Spain, where fascist government is not a remote bugaboo but a system under which many adult Spaniards grew up, the return of these sex-role protecting and preserving policies is less easily mistaken for progress than it is elsewhere in the world.

Indeed, a fascinating polemic published in May 2023 names Spain as a nation in which feminists are particularly mobilized, warning readers that “the bulk of the Spanish anti-trans feminist movement is well-educated, scholarly cisgender women,” which is to say, women who know their history and their politics well -- exactly the sort of women who contributed to Coeducation Kidnapped. The real focus of the polemic, however, is Women’s Declaration International, founded in 2018 following the public launch of the Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights, and which now has 50 active national chapters around the world.

Early on, the author Lee Leveille inserts a claim about “dark money” funding WDI: the document linked as a source for this claim discusses Christian organizations that have overseas operations of various kinds, none of which provide any funding to WDI. That the claim is nevertheless attempted is telling, because it suggests Leveille cannot imagine an activist undertaking that is not secretly astroturfed. For WDI to be what it is -- a wildly successful organization powered by dedicated women volunteers from around the world and fueled by small individual donations – is unimaginable.

This may reflect the author’s experiences with trans activist organizations, which do in fact enjoy enormously lavish funding. In a similar bit of projection, Leveille suggests Mexican radical feminists once threatened trans-identified men with “barbed wire-wrapped baseball bats.” No source is given for the allegation, and its likely origin is a in San Francisco put together by the “Degenderettes,” a trans activist group, which included baseball bats painted pink and blue and wrapped in barbed wire, blood-spattered t-shirts, and signs reading “I punch TERFS” (a slur for feminists who criticize trans activists). Beyond the strategy of “reverse victim and offender,” the tone of the entire piece is one of shattered indignation that women are organizing and engaging in normal activist strategies at all. Leveille even suggests that the American WDI chapter’s filing of Freedom of Information Act requests is a “far right tactic.” Don’t tell the environmental movement, or consumers’ rights organizations, or left-wing journalists!

The plain fact is that trans activism in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century caught the global women’s movement napping. But trans activists were badly mistaken to think real feminism was a sleepy cuddle bear who could never be roused to full alert. We are wide awake now, and possessed of all the qualities traditionally associated with Mama Ursinus. Why, after all, am I, an anthropologist based in Canada, reviewing about a book written in Spanish by Spanish educators?

Reader, you guessed it: the dastardly WDI struck again! (Our chief weapon is surprise, along with ruthless devotion to Sheila Jeffreys). In 2020, I was invited to speak at one of their international webinars after having been dismissed as undergraduate programs coordinator in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta following student objections to my feminist criticism of gender ideology and trans activism. The lead coordinator of the text reviewed here, Silvia Carrasco, was invited to discuss her work with DoFemCo at the same session. Although our research interests are quite different, we are both anthropologists. We connected over our shared frustration at watching our discipline, once critical of imperialism, become thoroughly colonized by an ideology promulgated by the late capitalist West, lavishly funded by big pharma, and backed by the US-led foreign policy apparatus. Silvia invited me to present at an internet conference organized in Spain 2021, and shared this book with me when it came out in 2022. It is, as I fully expected it to be, a sharp and informative read. It has sold like hotcakes in Spain, where it is already in its third edition. But more than that, the book crackles with the energy of a re-awakened women’s liberation movement. WDI runs on the same rocket fuel: women’s capacity for warmth and solidarity, paired with our deep rage. Anyone betting against us now is a fool.

Carrasco Pons, Silvia, Ana Hidalgo Urtiaga, Araceli Muñoz de Lacalle, and Marina Pibernat Vila. 2022. La coeducación secuestrada: Crítica feminista a la penetración de las ideas transgeneristas en la educación. Barcelona: Editorial Octaedro.

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