Home Book review - Material Girls by Kathleen Stock

Book review - Material Girls by Kathleen Stock

Recently I read the book Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism by Kathleen Stock. In it, Stock lays out the argument of those who are ‘gender-critical’, or less charitably, ‘TERFs’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). She makes the case that biological sex is a binary, and attempts to untangle different ideologies on what gender is, and how we use the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Eventually she comes to a conclusion that trans people should be treated with dignity, but that they should be considered ‘women’ or ‘men’ in accordance with their birth sex rather than their gender identity, as she finds contradictions in what gender identity means.

I won’t go through her arguments because I will surely muddle things, and while I don’t know enough about this subject to say, I suspect that she characterizes some of her opponents’ views unfairly. If you’re curious, however, I do recommend the book, if only for being concise and not too long - perhaps your thoughts at the end will feel less confused to you than mine do to me.

One compromise which Stock doesn’t really mention is the distinction between looking at things at the individual level of whether a given person can be seen to count as a woman or a man, and the difference between groups as categories of people with certain statistical properties. If we for example consider a trans woman who passes, there does seem to be a coherent sense in which such a person can be considered a woman, and a similar case that they shouldn’t be considered a man. If, however, we consider trans women as a group, then surely they would have different experiences, on average, than cis women.

This sort of sentiment is expressed in some quotes in the book, for instance when Stock cites the journalist Elinor Burkett, who wrote that:

[Trans women] haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified that they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.

But surely for any one of these examples, we could find many cis women who don’t have that experience, and surely also many who haven’t had any of these experiences, and so they can’t on their own be membership criteria. The point seems to be that cis women are women by dint of having gone through some amount of oppression because of their female biology. But this is a cluster of experiences, which different cis women have had to greater or lesser extents, and which doesn’t necessarily bear on whether any given trans woman should be considered a woman.

Hypothesized differences

In spite of this, I’d be surprised if trans women are as a group indistinguishable statistically from cis women, or trans men indistinguishable from cis men. Some areas where I’d expect there to be differences are:

  • Trans people might have higher levels of neuroticism (as a Big Five personality trait) than cis people.
  • Trans people might be less likely to have children, especially biological children.
  • I’d expect trans men to be less likely to get into physical altercations than cis men.
  • There’s a cultural stereotype that trans women are overrepresented in sex work, which I expect is true.
  • Trans men might be less likely than cis men, but more likely than cis women, to do manual labor that involves heavy lifting.
  • Trans people might have more mixed sexualities than cis people (so deviating from whichever percentage of cis men are attracted to women, for instance.)

In general though, I’d be most curious to know differences in personality traits, interests and career choices, of course keeping in mind that these might reflect different opportunities rather than inclinations. What, then, does the research literature say?

What does the research literature say?

I’ve restricted myself (for now) to just personality differences, especially with regards to masculinity/femininity. There are many more studies on mental health (in general it’s bad), and very little that I could find on career trajectories (though I find this actually more interesting), but in any case, here’s a summary of what I saw:

A Polish study (Herman-Jeglinska et al. 2002) gave the Bem sex role inventory, a survey of traits that are coded masculine, feminine, or androgynous, to a sample of both trans and cis people. The sample consisted of 103 and 29 FtM and MtF trans people (the authors claim that Poland has more FtM than MtF transitioned people), and 135 and 303 cis men and women. Cis women scored lower than both cis men and trans men on the trait masculinity (p < 0.001). Cis men scored higher than trans women on masculinity, and trans men scored higher than trans women (p < 0.01). On the trait femininity, cis women scored higher than cis men (p < 0.001) and trans men (p < 0.01), but lower than trans women (p < 0.001).

Another study (Lippa 2001) assesed trans (38 MtF and 7 FtM) people and cis (136 M and 225 F) people on gender-related traits such as interests, occupations and self-reported masculinity or femininity. They found that trans women had much more female-gendered occupations and hobbies and higher self-reported femininity than cis men. Trans men also distinguished themselves strongly from cis women along opposite lines. Trans women were similar to gay men, but had higher self-reported femininity, and trans men were more masculine than lesbians along all dimensions included.

A small study (Barlow et al. 1980) with a sample of 8 trans women (pre-surgery) and 8 cis women compared the prevalence of feminine and masculine mannerisms between the two groups. They found that the trans women exhibited more feminine mannerisms than the cis women, and slightly more masculine-typed mannerisms as well. Overall though, more feminine than masculine mannerisms were exhibited by both groups, and trans women had a higher difference of feminine minus masculine mannerisms than did cis women.

Another small study of 6 trans men (Money & Brennan 1968) qualitatively described a number of shared personality features. These men had very low percentile scores for femininity, and moderate scores for masculinity (though often lower than the median cis man would score). These categories were drawn from the Guilford Zimmerman inventory of gender-typical temperamental traits and preferred activities. They also all reported playing as children in ways that were more typical of boys than girls. All were more sexually attracted to women than men. Five had top surgery, and four a hysterectomy - none showed any signs of regretting the procedures.

Two of the men filled a parental role for a child, which the authors of the paper describe as a paternal one, though they admit this is a subjective judgment. They describe that the trans men were all repulsed by ideas of pregnancy or motherhood, and were generally not preoccupied with children, though they conjecture that this is more due to being preoccupied with their own transition rather than any dislike. (Quite frankly though this sounds like just the rational response to pregnancy; I’ve anecdotally known cis women who seemed repulsed by the idea too.)

A different approach is to collect data on trans people’s personalities as they’re transitioning, as was done in one study with 23 FtM trans people and 27 age-matched cis female controls (Metzger & Boettger 2014). The trans men had higher neuroticism than cis women (p < 0.01), and much lower extraversion (p < 0.001). They were also less agreeable (p < 0.05). All of these gaps diminished (although without disappearing) as the trans men went on hormone replacement therapy, especially depressive aspects of neuroticism. (Note that this is only one of several studies that show improved mental health for trans people obtaining hormone therapy, although this review paper indicates more mixed results.)

A related study (Defreyne et al. 2018) surveyed 56 trans men and 84 trans women to observe any effects of hormone therapy on aggression. They found no effect, and in particular no increase in aggression among trans men due to taking testosterone. (Are trans men more or less aggressive than cis men, then?) And another related study (Van Goozen et al. 1995) of 35 trans men and 15 trans women found that hormone treatment made trans men more aggressive, more horny and with improved spatial ability, but it lowered verbal fluency, with opposite effects occurring in trans women.


It seems as though trans people are more similar to the gender they transition to than from in many ways in their inclinations. Some of these ways are social, such as preferred activities, and some are physical, such as disdain for their own female anatomy in trans men.

The one biggest trait where I would expect trans people to differ significantly from their cis counterparts is in parental roles. Trans women can’t have the same experience of motherhood, nor trans men of fatherhood, when taken on average. (Of course some cis people are infertile, trans people can adopt or use fertility treatments, etc. The point is not about the exceptions but the general rule.)

Perhaps they are also on average less interested in parenthood? Money & Brennan 1968 was the only study I found which addressed this directly but the sample size is small. In any case, having children is a big part in many people’s lives, and it does seem like a significant group difference if one group is much more likely to have children than another.

Also, we’re putting an awful lot of trust in some of these inventories of masculine and feminine behavior, aren’t we? Personally I think there’s truth in the distinction, but it’s unsurprising to me that there are feminists who find it regressive.

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